Olivia Collins

Home: Maine
Age 9
Date Of Trip: July 2004 to June 2006
Type of Boat: Mariner 39

September 15, 2007

My Two-Year Caribbean Adventure
By Olivia Collins

Waves rustle against the hull of Zora. A seagull shrieks to the rising sun as I open my hatch. Beyond the deck, a white-sand beach stretches off into the distance. Light dances in the turquoise waves. Later in the day, I might go for a snorkel or collect shells in that pristine sand. No, it isn’t a happy dream. It was my life for two years.

I emerge from the depths of half-finished Zora after scouting it out with a flashlight. She was completely ripped apart and it took 2 years to get her ready for our trip. Doesn't it look like someone just stuck a castle on this Nova Scotia wreck's hull? Somebody must have wanted to live like a pirate king!

When I was four and five, my mother had breast cancer. I was so scared for her, but she survived. That left my family with an important morale: Live while you can, and make the best of it, because you never know what will happen next. So we made a decision; we would get a sailboat and go cruising for a while. My parents found Zora, our Mariner 39, in an old boatyard, lying in a field. Feral cats had been using her as a litter box. Stuff was falling off. She was going to take a lot of work.

For two years my parents fixed her up. While Dad sanded, I came and watched movies on a small TV. While Mom varnished, I drew. Every day after school, I was completely bored. During the second year, we rented out our house and moved out (I remember this so well) on Halloween night to my grandmother’s house on Great Diamond Island, in Casco Bay, Maine. Every morning, I took the ferry boat, sometimes alone (and once with actress Liv Tyler!) to school, then back in the evenings. Sometimes I didn’t see my dad for days on end because he worked all night on Zora in the boatyard. It was really hard, but then she was finished! Zora was finally finished and launched!

The first night of our two-year trip aboard Zora brought us an unexpected visitor: a baby beluga whale nicknamed Poco. We were motoring back to Zora in our little, soft-bottomed dinghy when… BUMP! “What on earth was that?” said my mom. BUMP! We looked over the side. Was it a rock? Then a friendly little white face peered up at us. Poco! He was like a dog, playing with our dinghy painter, letting us pet his rubbery skin. When we left to sail south the next day, who squirted Mom in the face but the friendly little whale! He followed us all day and night before turning around.

Poco the beluga whale plays with our dinghy painter. My cat Daisy naps on a pile of charts.

For my eighth birthday I got a great present -- a Siamese kitten! I named her Daisy and we spent hours and hours laughing at “Kittovision” – the new 24-hour-a-day cat-entertainment show. She was my best friend on the boat trip and helped keep me from getting bored as we motored down the ICW in cold fall weather.

"ICW” stands for IntraCoastal Waterway. The ICW was a string of locks and bridges and man-made rivers. And there we started home schooling. Although it only took one or two hours in the morning, I had just about the worst Math and English books ever. It was kind of neat, however, that my mom designed my classes and I got to study things that had to do with the trip, like Mayan civilization and sea creatures. Part of my Science class was studying my vast shell collection.

Goodbye, New York! We have Lady Liberty behind as we head for the ICW. I swing from the bosun's chair on the mast to get a better view of an ICW sunset.

I had two encounters with wild horses on the ICW: The first, I was looking for the shaggy ponies that live on an island near Beaufort with some cruising buddies. Two paths crossed -- the one we were on, and a seemingly deserted one. Suddenly, we heard whinnying and hooves. We all flattened ourselves behind some bushes as the whole herd came thundering past. We got up after they were gone. We were a bunch of kids, no adults, in the middle of some wild island, and had almost gotten trampled by ponies! We all grinned and headed back to the beach to tell our parents.

Beaufort ponies amble across a marsh.
I was so proud of those big yellowtail snappers I kept reeling in!

My second encounter was just as odd: On Cumberland Island, Georgia, the whole troupe of cruising kids (again) were coming back from a beach on the other side of the island when a herd of wild horses was grazing right in front of our noses! We couldn’t resist: We mingled in with the uncaring horses and picked out “our” horse. I chose a white filly I named Snowflake, while my friend chose a mare who was obviously her mother, as they were grazing side-by-side. It was time to go, but as we were walking back to our dinghies, my friend whispered, “Turn around!” I did. Snowflake was following me, while her mother still grazed! The filly followed me to the edge of the field (it took all my will not to stroke her), whinnied, then ambled back to her mom. It was purely magical.

The whole tribe of cruising kids lights a beach bonfire to honor the sunset.

All of the cruising kids collected driftwood and trash on the beach to build model sailboats for a race. My trimaran kept flipping over! Conception Island, Bahamas.

At last! Florida behind us, we were in the Caribbean! Our first stop was the beautiful Bahamas. On one island, I went to school there for five days. Everyone there was wearing uniforms! On the capitol island, Nassau, there were hustling, bustling streets and businesses. Most of the other islands were remote and we had lots of beaches to explore.

Here I am holding a GIGANTIC lobster that my Dad caught! It was bigger than my cat Daisy!

The water at Conception Island in the Bahamas was amazingly clear.

During a police band march in the Bahamas, the drummers wore real jaguar skins!

If sand dollars were real dollars, we'd be rich! I counted exactly 151 sand dollars, not counting broken ones.
I made friends with some of the island girls while I attended a Bahamian school. The school didn't even have windows. just shutters, because it never gets very cold. Some cruising buddies! We had a club called SeaKids and made burgees to fly.

We then proceeded through the Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, and other small islands. In Dominica, someone climbed aboard our boat in the middle of the night! Dad was able to frighten the thief away, but it was quite a scare for us. We left Dominica the next morning, thoroughly shaken.

A long, steep hike to the top of this hill in Culebrita near Puerto Rico brought the reward of a spectacular view. The newest addition to my large shell collection. Bahia Icacos, Vieques, Puerto Rico.

We kept sailing south until we reached Grenada, where we went on a little tour! We climbed into a bus with other people (including some of my cruising-kid friends) and set off. Our first stop was a waterfall. It was so beautiful, and we jumped off a smaller one. Then we stopped by a nutmeg factory. Now, Grenada nutmeg is very famous, but the island had just suffered a big hurricane at the time of our visit, and 95 percent of the nutmeg trees were knocked down. Grenada must have had a lot of nutmeg trees, though, because when we visited the factory the many, giant bins were overflowing! Each of the kids got a couple nutmegs, and long afterwards (we still have some) my parents grated the spice into their sundowners. Next, we visited a chocolate factory, where the chocolate was made straight from the cocoa beans in an old machine with very little else added to it. There were varying textures and grades of chocolate, from extra-light to super-dark, sweet to bitter. We got to try a few pieces -- they were all excellent.

Dad and I jump off a miniature waterfall in Grenada.

Men work a hundreds-of-years-old rum press in Grenada.

Lastly, we visited a very old rum factory (what Caribbean island would be complete without rum?). It still used an antique rum press, and we got to see the ancient machinery work. Quite simply, it crushed the sugar cane (there was a whole field of it) and the juices went down a little tube into vats. We watched as the vats boiled the cane juice, and as it was put into oak barrels. Finally, the parents were supplied with a very small cup of rum and a very large glass of water. Apparently they really needed that water afterwards! My mom bought a tiny bottle of the rum and I believe we still have it -- nobody’s been brave enough to drink it yet.

This wild iguana in an Iguana Reserve in Honduras let me pet him! He felt all rough! I stand in a rainforest in Honduras.

After that we continued downwards to Trinidad and went on a “turtle tour.” We saw baby leatherback sea turtles hatching, and Mama Leatherback laying her eggs. We even got to hold the baby turtles! It was a great experience, and it went on until midnight!

I hold a baby leatherback turtle in Trinidad at midnight. This amazing jungle flower has a gigantic spider on it… look closely.

After Trinidad, we went to Venezuela. From Venezuela, we tried to go to Panama. However, half way through the passage, our engine died! The situation gets worse, however -- Hurricane Wilma was forming to the north! We had of get out of there. There was no way we would make it to Panama, so we veered towards Colombia. We got into an anchorage whose entrance was guarded by two tall rocks by hitching our dinghy to Zora’s side as a tugboat! Colombia was very fun.

While a mother turtle lays her eggs, she goes into a trance, and I was able to pet her. Much of my time was passed by making extremely elaborate sandcastles.

Soon we were in the San Blas of Panama. The string of perfect islands would have to be one of my favorite places! Some islands were inhabited by the Kuna Indians. They made beautiful cloth pictures called molas, paddled long, burnt-log canoes called ulus, and made jewelry from claws and teeth.

Mom and I went on a horseback ride through jungles, rivers and beaches in Honduras. One set of footprints - mine - seems to say I was the only human to ever set foot on this sandbar…

After the San Blas we went to go see Tikal, the great ruined Mayan civilization. There were huge temples of limestone, intricately carved, rising up out of the vast jungle. (Tikal was used in Star Wars as the rebel base.) There were parrots and monkeys, toucans and coatimundis. That was a truly amazing experience!

Kuna men sail an ulu in the San Blas. I run under a hammock in the San Blas.

After Tikal we headed home. The funny thing is, I always wanted to go home on the trip, but now that I’m back in Portland, I want to go back out cruising again.

I'm dreaming of a warm Christmas! Christmas morn in the San Blas. A family portrait on deck.