The Health Care Disease

For some time I have wanted to share my difficult and poisonous journey with America’s Health system. (It’s a long one.)

I first began paying for health insurance at the age of 23. I was still on my parents’ health plan but while travelling through India I ran out of money and they loaned me enough to buy a plane ticket home. Instead of paying it back, they suggested I start buying my own health insurance. I found an insurance agent, filled out a form, and got a plan for $100/month with a $5,000 deductible. I could live with that.

This plan worked well for me for a few years. I watched as Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) passed and cheered for friends of mine who could suddenly receive health care for the first time at an affordable price. When we got pregnant with Summer, our plan worked great for us. Everyone was in-network, bills were paid, and I had not a single worry. But in 2014, I received letters from our insurance companies telling us that our plans were no longer available on the individual market.

For the first time (of many), I started my search for a new plan. This time I had to go through the marketplace. Plans were slightly more expensive but nothing crazy. Summer and I joined Colorado Health Op – a new non-profit insurance that kept cost low. We used the insurance twice for preventative appointments, but when we really needed it we couldn’t use it. We were in Florida for a few months and Summer started vomiting. We visited an urgent care facility and paid for it out of pocket. It didn’t matter too much since we weren’t even close to fulfilling our deductible for the year so would’ve had to pay for it regardless of where we were. Aside from a few immunizations and preventative appointments, we steered clear of the doctor.

But then we got another letter. The non-profit agency had trouble adhering to Obamacare standards and couldn’t compete in the overpriced health market. At this point I was pregnant again. I didn’t panic though because I knew I couldn’t be denied health care from a pre-existing condition (i.e. pregnancy). This time, Bruce’s insurance dropped him as well. Bruce had the same plan for over 10 years. Even though he was “grandfathered” in, the company was somehow able to drop all plans in Florida.

So I went back to the health marketplace (this time in Florida). I was shocked at the prices. For our family of three the monthly premiums cost us over $1,000. Our incomes fluctuate from year to year so we had no idea if we were going to qualify for a subsidy. The individual deductible was $4200 and the individual out-of-pocket maximum was $6500. The family out-of-pocket maximum was $13,000. I signed up and crossed my fingers.

If you haven’t had to take a course on insurance agency lingo like I have, you may be lost. The words deductible, premium, pre-existing condition, in-network, out-of-pocket maximum, primary care physician, referral, co-insurance, co-pay, and out-of-network provider may seem foreign to you. Pay attention: these vocabulary words are important and are useful for insurance agencies to deny coverage or at least trick you into paying more.

When the time came to deliver the baby, all was well. Arlo was born in March. And while we received less than satisfactory medical care, we all emerged mostly healthy. Although here is an important distinction. In the American Health Care system, the insurance company is the client. The doctor is the employee. And the patient is just a by-product. All of the negotiation happens between the hospital and the insurance companies. And sure, the nurses are friendly, and perhaps the doctor kind of knows what she’s doing. But there is no monetary incentive for that doctor or hospital or nurse to do a good job. Sure, I could write a negative review, but in isolated communities like key west, patients have no bargaining tools whatsoever.

At the end of my 5 days in the hospital, I had received a terrible epidural, my neck got really messed up, and the showers had no hot water (it had been that way for weeks). Try pushing a human out of your body and then not being offered a hot shower. Instead of treating my neck pain with a chiropractor or massage, they saddled me with a bunch of pain pills. I had a newborn baby and I couldn’t move my head in any direction and the pain pills were making me dizzy and delusional.

So far, this is not the insurance’s fault. But here’s where it gets good. The bill from the hospital came a few weeks later. My bill, as expected, was the entire amount of my out-of-pocket costs: $6,500. Arlo received a bill for $3,500. Even though the baby traditionally is filed under the mother’s account, I was discharged before Arlo because he needed a few extra rounds of antibiotics. The entire stay in the hospital would have cost us almost $49,000 (according to the bill). Let me reiterate that: I had a natural child birth with almost no complications (a few extra rounds of antibiotics and a couple of blood tests) and the hospital charged almost 50K. I know the insurance company probably has a negotiated price with the hospital, but goodness. Read this article for more information about how the U.S. prices for child birth are astronomical: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-31052665

And it’s not just that doctors and hospitals are charging more, but Americans are more prone to visit the doctor during pregnancy. In France, for a normal and healthy delivery, a pregnant mother will visit her doctor five times before giving birth. In the U.S. that’s eleven. My doctor ordered an ultrasound for me at 34 weeks (even though I had 2 prior ultrasounds) to make sure the baby was in the right position. A midwife-friend who had been delivering babies for 30 years told me, “If I can’t tell the position of the baby just by feeling the mother’s belly then someone should take away my license.”

After Arlo was born I had to call the insurance company and add him to our plan. I was directed again to the health marketplace, but I couldn’t just add Arlo to the plan, I had to sign our entire family up for health insurance again. That means answering questions, providing Social Security numbers, reading and selecting a plan. It takes at least an hour. Our new premiums as a family of four was $1235.00. Everything was fine until two months later, I received a bill from our pediatrician that said Arlo’s 1-month check up was denied payment.

So I got on the phone with the insurance company again. “You haven’t paid your premiums,” the lady told me over the phone.

“I signed up for autodraft,” I told her.

“Oh, well you need to re-enroll for autodraft when you have a life-change,” she informed me. So basically, everything in my account was the same – username, password, bank info – but I didn’t click the autodraft button again. Forgive me, but I had a newborn (and a toddler). And for some reason, even though my insurance agency sends me plenty of statements now, they were suspiciously quiet during this period of non-payment.

So, not to worry, I just paid three months at once (ouch: $3,600). Later, when I kept receiving denied claims, I learned that there was a weird balance of $120.00 that didn’t transfer in the change-over and my claims continued to be denied. So every time we got a bill for non-payment, I had to call the doctors office (or lab or hospital) and ask them to refile the claims. And unfortunately, we were sick a lot this summer. I got mastitis, Summer got a sore throat and could barely eat or drink, Bruce got a bad cough, and then there was Arlo…

When babies are born in the U.S. they receive a genetic blood screening. Arlo’s came back abnormal for galactosemia – a very rare genetic disorder where the infant cannot process galactose, which is a type of enzyme found in milks (and breastmilk). We knew Arlo didn’t have it because babies with galactosemia have trouble from the beginning. They vomit, they have jaundice, they don’t gain weight, etc. At two weeks old, Arlo was a plump ten pounds and breastfeeding like a champ. But, according the doctor, we needed to retake the galactosemia test to “rule it out.”

So we went back to the hospital and got another heel prick. That test also came back abnormal. So when Arlo was one month we had to get his blood drawn. If you’ve ever watched a lab tech try to find an infant’s blood vessel, it is terrible. There was lot of poking and crying (from me and from Arlo). A few weeks later we got a call. “They accidentally tested for only 1 out of the 3 categories of galactosemia so you need to come back again.”

I was livid, but what could I do? So Arlo and I returned to the hospital again for more torturous needle-poking. The lab tech told me, “I think I got enough blood.” Great.

Turns out she didn’t and now they only had 2/3 out of the three categories. They wanted us to take the test again. Luckily my pediatrician stepped in, chewed a few people out, and told me Arlo was fine. He had a 25% deduction in the enzymes that process galactosemia but it was nothing to worry about. We closed the book on galactosemia, until I got a bill from a lab in central Florida. Apparently, our insurance doesn’t cover pathology testing from that particular lab work. Not that I have any say in where my in-network hospital sends their bloodwork. We are still fighting that one.

Also during that time Arlo came down with a wicked high fever for a two month old. My forehead thermometer read 105, so I panicked and rushed Arlo to the E.R. at midnight. His rectal temperature was 102.9, which for an infant is quite high. They gave him tylenol and poked him with more needles in an unsuccessful attempt to draw blood. They wanted to insert a catheter, do chest xrays, etc etc. By 4 am, Arlo’s temperature was gone and without any answers I checked out of the hospital and saw the pediatrician first thing in the morning.

His fever never returned and all was well. But our hospital bill from that brief visit (where all they really did was check his temperature and give him some tylenol), was close to $2,000. Luckily, by this time, we hit out deductible! Wooohoo! Or so I thought. When I received a bill for a follow up visit to my gynecologist, I was confused. Surely that was a mistake? So, I called my insurance company. Apparently, some bill that I had already paid to the hospital, was lowered for $200 (the reasoning isn’t clear). If I want a refund I need to call the hospital. WTF?! I’m still not sure I understand this one, but like Bruce says, Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to throw money at it.

I also thought it was strange that my co-insurance hadn’t kicked in. If you remember our deductible was $4200, so after the deductible is met, the patient pays 30% and the insurance company pays 70% until the out-of-pocket maximum is met. But according to my insurance company, some visits (like the hospital) don’t qualify for co-insurance. Again, one of those things that I don’t understand.

We spent the summer in Colorado, where Arlo was due for immunizations. Our insurance doesn’t work in Colorado (since it is from Florida) so if I wanted Arlo to stay on schedule, the out-of-pocket cost was $800. Luckily, Colorado has a plan for the “uninsured” to give free immunizations. We still had to pay an $80 administrative fee, but whatever. Summer also got sick while we were there and we had to go to urgent care. The doctor told me it was strep throat (I don’t think it was) and gave us some antibiotics. She recovered, but because the visit was “non-emergency,” the insurance company denied it.

My next insurance bill came from a check up (preventative care) with the pediatrician in Florida. We have a pediatrician that we love and I was excited to take Summer to her 3-year check up to discuss small issues. It turns out that I never designated Summer’s primary care physician. And this insurance plan requires “referrals” meaning you are not allowed to visit another doctor without a referral from your primary care physician. I don’t understand this reasoning, but it is a convenient way for insurance companies to deny coverage.

This summer we also noticed that Arlo’s head was shaped a little irregular. We learned that he had torticollis (a tight neck muscle) which made it easier for him to turn his head in one direction. Because he always slept looking to the right, his soft and malleable head formed a flat spot on that side. Physicians are debating the consequences of a flat head, which is a relatively new phenomenon now that babies sleep on their backs and not their bellies. The real problem is the torticollis (which is cured by stretching and physical therapy), but a severely flattened head can cause other problems like irregularly shaped foreheads, crooked ears, etc. Insurance companies have decided that it is cosmetic (my doctor claims it isn’t) and so won’t cover the helmet required to fix it. After a visit to a specialist in Maimi (a three-hour drive each way), we were overjoyed to learn that Arlo’s case was moderate and we didn’t need to pay $4,000 out of pocket for a helmet.

Insurance companies have a long list of services they won’t cover, such as a cranial band. Our insurance doesn’t cover glasses or contacts, dentistry, chiropractors, out of state, devices like blood pressure cuffs, oral appliances for snoring, epi-pens, over-the-counter drugs, shoe orthotics, “unproven” techniques for disorders like autism, tonsil removal except in the case of documented sleep apnea, speech therapy, obesity treatment, in vitro fertilization, out of country, vaccines required only for school or camp, or autopsy.

I’m skipping over many, many small issues throughout the year. I called my insurance company at least twice a month all year long. It has taken a significant chunk of my energy and I have a little bit of post-traumatic stress every time I get a bill in the mail. The hardest thing for me is the not-knowing. Every time we visit a doctor, I have no idea how much it’s going to cost or what problem my insurance company will find. It’s not even the absurd amounts of money we are spending for sub-standard care. It is so stressful and time consuming to worry about my health insurance. Unfortunately, people must fight health insurance the most when they are SICK!  I can’t imagine having really bad health problems (like cancer) and having to simultaneously battle insurance companies over every bill.

I get it. Nothing is free. But unfortunately people that are on medicaid have no problems, old people are covered, people who have generous (or forced-generosity) employers are fine, and of course the wealthy have no problems. But there are an increasing number of people who have these problems. We are self-employed, free-lancing workers in the “gig economy” and are literally drowning from health insurance issues. To place the burden on businesses to provide health insurance is an unfair burden on small businesses (and often a cost gone unnoticed to the employee). In my opinion, it also binds a person to their employer instead of pursuing a new business or finding creative ways to make a living. And why should some people receive excellent care and benefits and others worse coverage?

This year alone, since we have fulfilled our deductible and paid large premiums, we have spent close to $30,000 on health care and insurance. Not to mention countless hours of time on the phone, the computer, reading bills, and bitching about our problems. Sure there are HSAs (Health Savings Accounts) available. These allow you to put money in a  tax-free account that can only be used for health purposes. They are useful for high-deductible plans so that when you need it there is money to pay for health costs. For some reason (maybe somebody out there can tell me), my plan says “HSA-ineligible.”

Purists will argue that a capitalistic health insurance system will benefit the individual since insurance companies have to battle for your business. Except in normal businesses, a company can choose not to do business with someone. If Ford wants to sell a bunch of cars to a car dealership in Tampa, but that car dealership will not give them enough money, the Ford company will refuse business. But that’s not fair when we are talking about life and death or bankruptcy.

Some people will say that in Canada or France or wherever else it takes ages to get an appointment. Our friends in Ontario who work at a doctor’s office says that isn’t true. And it already happens here. Summer needs to see an Ear Nose and Throat specialist and the pediatrics doctor’s earliest appointment is three months away. How can I wait that long while my daughter is snoring, having problems breathing through her nose, and not getting a good night’s sleep?

For me, the expense is bad, but the real issue is that tracking health-insurance is a full-time and difficult job. What about someone who works 40-hours a week and takes care of small children? How do they have the time to sit for an hour debating bills with a customer service representative? And what about the uninitiated? The jargon is confusing at best. A friend of mine told me about a plan she purchased outside the marketplace. It was almost as cheap as a marketplace plan, until she realized that the $5,000 deductible was renewed every 6 months. She didn’t follow the tricky lingo that the insurance agent used.

I’m getting really good at working the system. In fact, if anyone needs help choosing a plan (Bronze, silver, WHAT?), I am happy to give you advice. I wish someone had given me better advice. But I did learn a new trick. When one of my bills accidentally went to a collections agent while I waited for the insurance company to refile the claim, the collections company offered me a 10% discount on the original bill if I paid it in full. So the next time I received a bill I called the hospital directly and said, “The collections agency offered my 10% off an earlier bill. What can you offer me?” I saved $120.

The fact that I have to bargain, fight, compete, argue, complain, and struggle health insurance and health industries in this “greatest country in the world” makes me sick (HA HA). For the love of God PLEASE SOMEBODY GIVE US A SINGLE PAYER HEALTH SYSTEM.

A few months ago, we got another letter from our insurance company saying that our plan is no longer being offered in our area next year. So… back to the drawing board. What else can I do?

 

 

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Asking for More

Remember that whole controversy a few weeks ago regarding Jennifer Lawrence and the gender gap? When I read that I though, “Boo hoo. Poor movie star misses out on millions of dollars.”

But then I read what she said about it. She wasn’t mad at the employer, she was mad at herself. She didn’t want to be difficult or spoiled. And what I found most similar with myself – she wanted to be liked.

It has a lot to do with my ENFP personality. Perhaps the defining quality of my personality is a desire to be liked. So I never ask for money. In fact, sometimes I offer more money with the hopes that the person may even like me more. Pretty backwards, right?

I do some freelance writing on the side. It is pretty sporadic, so when a gig comes my way, I almost never say no. This time the gig that came my way didn’t pay that much. But I took it anyway and it was a lot of work. I was writing a textbook for elementary kids and this one was about kitchen technology. “A refrigerator keeps things cold.” “Boiling water helps cook things like pasta.” It was pretty dull.

The next topic was a lot more interesting – Alternative homes. This year alone we have lived in a sailboat, an “RV,” and now a houseboat. But the word count was almost twice as much and the fee was going to stay the same.

I finally talked myself into asking for more. I wrote an email to my editor – by far the least confrontational way of asking for something. And he said yes! I made myself $250 more just by asking. But I’ll be honest, I was so nervous. I didn’t want him to take away future projects. I definitely didn’t want him to say no. And most importantly, I didn’t want him to be mad at me.

I felt victorious. I won! But I still feel icky about it. I hate asking for more. Living in America, we don’t bargain for things. I never learned to argue about price and I find talking about money very uncomfortable.

I don’t think the wage gap comes just from gender. For me, its a trifecta of gender, personality, and societal upbringing. And unfortunately, it’s a life skill I will have to practice even more. Asking for what you want is most of the battle.

One week on the road

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The trip from Key West to Ocracoke took three days. We left on Tuesday morning from a rather unsettling and disorienting first night in the van. We couldn’t get our bearings and seemed a little confused while gathering the remainder of our belongings so we decided, “To hell with it. Let’s just get going.” So with that attitude we drove out of our southernmost island and began the journey.

We stopped in Key Largo to have the sprinter van checked. Bruce knew of a Mercedes repair shop and arranged for the mechanic to take a peak under the hood before we began our 9,000-mile journey. He filled our transmission fluid (something hard to do without the help of a mechanic) and replaced a few hoses. The stop took much longer than we expected, and so it was past 5 pm when we finally hit the road again.

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We made it to Boca Raton before a massive rainstorm forced us to call it a night. We pulled of the turnpike and parked in the first parking lot around. We put the window shields in, turned out the lights and fell asleep with rain beating on our tin storage unit that we call home.

Around midnight we heard a knock on the van. Bruce opened the door and was greeted by a security guard. “This is private property.”

“Well it was raining so hard we just had to pull off the road,” Bruce told the man. “Our daughter fell asleep in her crib and so we had to call it a night.”

“OK, OK,” He said with a thick Bahamian accent. “No problem. I will tell the other security guards.”

Even though our van blends right into a parking lot full of cars – one of the benefits of having a sprinter van and not an RV or a westfalia – we are a dead give away because of the running engine. Diesel motors are able to run continuously without fail, and we do this regularly to keep the air conditioning going. So, just a few hours later, we received another knock. This time it was two police officers. Bruce told the the spiel again and they also let us stay sleeping.

From there we knew we had to be a bit more selective. The next night, after a monster 7 hours on the road (No small feat with a toddler), we found a truck stop and pulled alongside massive 18-wheelers. We luckily spent the night undisturbed, used clean and convenient toilets in the morning, and even prepared coffee and breakfast in the back parking lot of a nearby Harbor Freight Tool shop. Another night we enjoyed the quiet and security of a Walmart parking lot.

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Stealth camping has been going well so far. We stop multiple times throughout the day at rest stops or state parks. Summer and Bonnie run around for a few hours while we cook dinner and hose off. It’s a slower pace, but one that is more comfortable. By the time we arrived in Ocracoke, North Carolina 3 days later, we were ready for a shower and some laundry, but not exactly travel weary. Our nights are restful and convenient, and so far our wallets are happy too.

Sprinter Van remodel

In just a few days we will embark on a summer road trip up the coast to Maine, across Canada, and ending in Colorado. We have been a one-car family for the last 8 months (if you don’t count the scooter) and the idea of jamming everyone into my mid-sized Accord for three months seemed a little too cramped. Plus, we didn’t want to doll out tons of money on hotels along the way. sprinter

 

An RV is just a little too big and too expensive for what we needed, so we bought a 2005 Dodge sprinter van. The wheel base is 158″ which makes it just over 20 feet long, capable of fitting in parking spots but big enough for two adults, a toddler, and a dog. The engine is a Mercedes diesel and gets about 23 miles per gallon. We found a sprinter with 200,000 miles in Miami. These vans can last up to 500,000 miles so we jumped on the deal and brought home a completely gutted cargo van.


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We added insulation and put 3/16 luan plywood to cover the sides so it felt like a home and not a cargo van. One problem we stumbled upon was the van is not exactly filled with straight edges. Most of it is curved, so Bruce decided the first task was to make corners and edges that are easier to build on. Our sprinter van came with two sliding cargo doors, which we deemed redundant, so we covered one up with plywood to make more building space. Although we are not using the door, it comes in handy for other reasons. Bruce ran wires from the 12V adaptor along the sides before he put the plywood up. We have four fans in all four corners that can run almost continuously without draining the battery. We also have two portable battery charged larger vans. Coupled with the vehicle’s air conditioner, this will keep us cool.

 

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Bruce spent a lot of effort on the ceilings. Using 16-foot 2 by 6 boards, he used a table saw to make them into strips for a unique detailed look. The ceiling took almost two days and was especially taxing because of the curvature of the ceiling and the fact that holding a long board overhead while drilling screws is especially difficult. He added a shelf all the way around (there is a natural step where the high ceiling of the sprinter van begins). This shelf will hold most of our storage, including clothes, food, books, and bathroom supplies. He painted the side white, added a stain to the ceiling and shelf, and voila! It looks and feels like a rustic cabin – on wheels.

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We found some solid bamboo flooring on sale at Home Depot.

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We framed a bed 34″ off the floor. Underneath the bed will be storage and Summer’s sleeping area. It’s high enough that I can sit under there with her, but still leaves us enough room to sit up on the bed on top. We bought a Queen size mattress from Tuft and Needle that is only 10″ thick so we had to consider that in our measurements. A bulkhead separates Summer’s area from a large storage compartment accessible from the back. We ordered a custom-made foam mattress for Summer from Foam N More. They also made a custom water-proof cover for easy cleaning.sprinter12

 

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Next we framed an area for the “kitchen.” All framing throughout the van was 2X4 2″ pine. Bruce used a table saw to make three grooves to fit panel doors that slide open to reveal the cooler and water jugs. He did not have a dado blade, so he just kept adjusting the fence to make the grooves wider. For the cooler, he installed drawer slide hardware so it sides out for easier access.

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Three water jugs and a foot pump live on the right side of the cabinet. The jugs hold 5 gallons each, and the foot pump is accessible by sliding the doors open. The jugs come out easily to refill. The drain from the sink and the drain from the cooler leads down to a footwell for the second and unused sliding door (I told you it would come in handy!). Bruce drilled a hole in the footwell. When we are stopped, we will simply place a 5-gallon bucket underneath the plumbing and dispose of the gray water.

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Bruce cut a large opening in the top of the storage cabinet above the cooler, which accesses a storage area underneath the counter.  This will hold all of the pots, pans, and dishes.

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One of the hardest decisions was where to keep the car seat. We first thought of installing an old suburban seat, but we just couldn’t make it fit in such a small space. We also toyed with the idea of building a seat on top of the bed and installing the car seat there, but there was not a place to bolt the straps to other than the homemade plywood bed frame. I also envisioned the daily set-up and breakdown of the car seat growing old. We decided to attach it on the ground and through-bolted it to the metal frame of the van. A few blocks helped us get the appropriate angle, and we purchased a new car seat with the highest side-impact rating.

We bought heat shields designed Sprinter vans to keep it cool when we parked. We purchased LED rope lights, a carbon monoxide detector, and fabric for curtains. I’m happy with the final look, although we still haven’t moved in yet. The goal was to make it simple and cheap, but still look nice and be a comfortable space to live in. We still probably spent more money than we wanted to, but it came together nicely. With an unlimited budget, I would’ve installed swivel seats for the driver and passenger seats, solar panels, a real refrigerator, and maybe a cargo storage box for the roof. Maybe next time.

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Spring cleaning twice a year

It’s a pretty consistent theme in our lives: we move every six months. This means we pack up our stuff, move it somewhere new, and then unload it again. Each time I am amazed at all of the stuff we accumulate. When we moved out of our house last year (a MANSION, relatively speaking), I was shocked at the amount of furniture, clothes, dishware, personal memorabilia, and other items that we stashed away in less than eight months.

Recently we packed up s/v Laurel to prepare for a 3 month long road trip in our sprinter van. S/V Laurel is a 40 foot long sailboat and often it seems incredible that the space can hold a family of three (plus a 50 pound dog!) in less than 100 square feet.

laurel2 laurel3 laurel4It does have a surprising amount of storage. All of those doors and drawers held everything we own – clothes, food, dishes, bathroom supplies, gear, bags, shoes, toys, stuffed animals, diapers, and more.

So when we unloaded everything and took inventory, I decided that if we are going to survive in a smaller space (like 50 square feet!), even more downsizing was necessary. This time it was our bathroom. We have enough medical equipment to open a hospital, and while we thankfully have never used most of it, I wondered, “Is it really that important to have five ace bandages and seven types of painkillers?”

For the van we need to stay organized and stay simple. There is just not that much space for storage. We are taking one plate, one bowl, and one utensil per person, plus light cooking equipment. Our bathroom kit fits in a bag that we can easily stow, and our clothes will be the bare necessities. Everything else we will pack in my Honda Accord that we are leaving behind.

All of this pairing down and sorting made me wonder: what do people do who live in giant houses for 30 years do with all of their stuff? I definitely have an issue with stuff. In fact, maybe my disease is considered the anti-hoarder. It’s true I often spend more money replacing furniture and clothes every other year, but I also feel so liberated holding only the essentials. (Read this article or visit this website for further inspiration.)

And after a few days of living in relative luxury while housesitting for a friend, the benefits of tiny living are hard to ignore. For example, cleaning on the boat consists of dishes and a quick sweep of the floor every morning (our floor space is roughly 25 square feet). Our belongings are confined to a few spots and pick-up takes about 3 minutes, compared to 30 minutes of toy gathering in a large space. Living in a small space also encourages us to leave the house more, and no room for a TV means we never lay around stuck in a Game of Thrones marathon (which I admit to sometimes missing). We read more, eat together more often, and spend time walking around the marina and talking to the neighbors.

We may decide to set up a more permanent nest in the future (stability is important for kids, I hear), and when that happens I’ve decided two important things must occur: we will continue living minimally and I’ll need to “spring clean” all year long.

Land Yacht

We’re trading our sea yacht (1969 Rhodes Cheoy Lee Offshore 40) for a land yacht (2005 Sprinter van 154″ wheelbase). We still don’t know what the future holds for us, but we decided to put our cruising dreams on hold for a few years. There were several reasons for this decision:

– We had money, but we had no way to make more money. When I was single in my early 20s, I didn’t mind working hard for a while and then taking an elaborate trip to spend every last penny. But now that there is a family, three forms of health insurance, and we have become a little more in tune with basic creature comforts, we have to keep up a certain amount in the bank. We could go to the Bahamas, but we might return a little worse for the wear.

– Our daughter, Summer, is not quite old enough. We had a great time travelling the ICW and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But, spending 8 hours on a moving boat with a toddle confined to a small space was not that fun (for me or for the toddler). Being a boat kid is a wonderful gift for a young one. But we want her to remember it. The ideal age seems to be 6-14. Old enough to do things on their own but young enough to live with their parents in a small space.

– We want a catamaran. We’ve tried the homemade catamaran and we’ve tried the affordable monohull, but there is nothing like a fully equipped production catamaran. We’re talking three bedrooms, a refrigerator (not an icebox), plentiful deck space, solar panels, water maker. That’s an expensive list but we think with a bit of hard work we can get  there.

Until then, we bought a land yacht. We have some friends and family we need to visit, and we are going to start some real estate remodeling and the van will suit our needs well for that. We are beginning the process of converting it from a work truck to a living space. I’ll send you photos when the process is complete.

He will be named, "Vincent"

He will be named, “Vincent”

A month on the ICW

I confess – I have really dropped the ball on this blog thing. I can blame it on the fact that I have a 14 month old. And a series of part time jobs, including a writing assignment that eats up every bit of brain power and sucks the creativity out of me. We also live on a sailboat, which means it takes some extra work to grocery shop, stock the ice box with blocks of ice, fill the water tanks, and refill our cooking fuel (more on that another day). But the biggest barrier has been the internet. During our trip down the ICW we planned stops just to use the internet. I had a deadline for a writing assignment and so searched out the best coffee shop to spend $5 on a latte and sit at a sticky table surrounded by the rumble of other conversations.  It has been brutal, but no one said they went travelling for the excellent internet connections.

So, let’s back track a little. If you have been following the blog, you know that the last entry ended with us running around in Carolina Beach. We were pulled off quickly, and [spoiler warning] we didn’t run around again. AT ALL! With a 6 foot draft I’d say that’s pretty lucky. But we were PARANOID the entire time. We spent hours every day pouring over charts, reading blogs on our phone, checking the tide tables and the weather forecast, planning anchor spots and doggy breaks. It was exhausting.

Sure we were safe inside the ICW, protected on all sides from waves and wind, but we obsessed over “trouble spots,” especially in Georgia where the tide difference was eight feet. That is a big tide, especially when a spot on the chart reads 5 feet, and you’re motoring past it on a falling tide.

But it wasn’t always that way and we got to see some beautiful spots. We woke up with the sun. Bruce would raise the anchor and start motoring south, while I made coffee and breakfast. We had such an easy routine throughout the day – meals and naps took up most of the baby’s time, and the in between hours we played with Summer’s toys, or did laps around the boat wearing her harness.

S/V Laurel (far right) leaving St. Augustine at sunrise

Sometimes we were anchored out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by tall grass and hundreds of birds, with only the sunset for company. On those nights we drank cocktails and read books. We found interesting small towns such as Southport, North Carolina and Isle of Hope, Georgia. On the Waccamaw River in South Carolina, we fueled up in Bucksport, where dockage was only $0.75 per foot! We passed that up for an anchor spot about a mile away and were so happy we did. It was by far the best anchor spot on the trip. After the sun set the sounds of the forest all around us were deafening. The next day the guidebook (and a fellow cruiser) convinced us into stopping in Georgetown, where we paid for an overpriced marina that was shadowed by a huge smelly factory. After our pristine night in the Waccamaw River we were pretty disappointed. In St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, we spent four days with our friends Cliff and Lisa Woodman. They loaned us their truck and gave us a tour of the beautiful island, including a stop at Southern Soul, which was the best barbeque I have ever tasted (and I’m from Texas). We found a great beach on St. Catherine’s Island, but like the rest of Georgia and South Carolina it was plagued with no-see-ems, causing us to plug up every dorade vent and opening on the boat.

St. Catherine's Island

But our favorite stops were Charleston and St. Augustine. We crossed the harbor in front of Charleston on a beautifully calm day, escorted to the city by a pod of dolphins. As we got closer you could see the mansions of Charleston rise up before us, but Bruce pointed out the history of the beautiful houses: “Slave money, slave money, slave money…” The (free) anchor spot across from the coast guard was uncrowded and ideal. When we got to shore, we walked into town in search of a happy hour spot.

Bruce found two college boys walking by and asked, “Where’s a good spot to have a beer?”

“Our house!” They answered. Then, looking down at his shirt, he pointed to the Queen Street Grocery. “Oh, you should go here! Follow us.” Turns out it wasn’t even his work uniform. He just loved it enough to wear the t-shirt. And we agreed, it was perfect. The old town setting of Charleston is so romantic. It didn’t hurt that we had blue skies and 75 degrees. We decided right then to stay an extra day.

Queen Street Grocery

St. Augustine was another city filled with old world charm. From the water, the city sky line looks like a European village. As the oldest settlement in America, it has retained its historical accuracy with cobblestone streets and stone buildings. Part of the town looked like a fairy tale, and part of it looked a little bit like Disney World, but walking the streets never got old. We had dinner at Nonna’s Trattoria, which was the best meal I have had this year, if not ever.

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The best part of St. Augustine was the friend we made at the dock next to us. Denis is the captain of Summer Wind, a classic Carriacou wooden sloop painted bright yellow and blue. He had just arrived after a difficult trip from New England. Bruce and Denis instantly found a lot in common, and we still keep in contact hoping to meet up this spring in the Bahamas. Read more about his story here.

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The rest of Florida was uneventful. We found plenty of spots to anchor and even got to sail a bit down the Indian River. We finally left the ICW at West Palm Beach, and not soon enough. The bridge tenders of southern Florida are a tad grumpy, and timing the bridges gave us a headache. We enjoyed seeing the skyline of Fort Lauderdale and Miami from the Atlantic Ocean. We passed many fishing boats and dredging operations in the Miami Harbor, until we finally reached the keys. The last three days down to Key West we raised the sails and enjoyed some fairly smooth downwind sailing. We landed in Key West on Sunday, November 16 at 1 pm, exactly four weeks after we left Carolina Beach.

Sunset in the keys

Motoring down the ICW was not on my bucket list and was not without its share of stress, expense, and frustrations. We also felt the whole time like there was a pressure to just get to Key West, and to get on with it already, so with a more relaxed schedule we may have enjoyed it even more. But in retrospect, it was the perfect adventure to break us into boat life, introduce Summer and Bonnie to cruising, and shake down the boat. We made some friends, like Pam and Ed who invited us aboard their totally outfitted and spacious catamaran for dinner. We saw some new parts of America, as well as thousands of birds and dolphins. Like Mark Twain said: “I’m glad I did it. Partly because it was worth it but mostly because I shall never have to do it again.”

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