After years as nomads, returning to the USA

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Dun colored cliffs on the back side of Block Island emerged from a hazy marine layer: our first sight of land as we approached New England. With each mile, landmarks and islets and buoys along the way tickled old memories of these waters where Jamie grew up racing, and where we met. Names remembered, but now unfamiliar enough they take a few beats to put into context. What’s the best channel east of Fishers Island? How close are the rocks off that point? What Jamie could have navigated blindfolded in years gone by needed careful chart references as we pointed towards landfall in Stonington, Connecticut.

Totem is in US waters for the first time since 2008. This is supposed to be a glorious feeling, this homecoming, but we were tense and a little stressed. Perhaps it stemmed from realization that a once-indelible mental map had faded. Certainly, a lot can be chalked up to the rough passage from Bermuda we were completing. Some was thanks to the terse reception from the boatyard, which ceased being helpful with our arrival (US Customs & Border Protection—CBP—officials work through their facility) when they learned we would be anchoring in the harbor that night (free) instead of paying them for a mooring ($50). But if I try to examine it honestly, it was also the niggling question: were we missed, after these many years gone by? Just as Jamie and I were getting a little snappy with each other a runabout motored up, carrying old friends hailing us and welcoming us home. More friends and family waited on the dock. Our mental cloud lifted.

Totem in her party dress: a strand of courtesy flags from many of the ~30 countries/territories we've visited
Party dress: a strand of courtesy flags from many of the ~30 countries/territories we’ve visited

First days back in the USA feel surreal. Kicking it off was the friendliest welcome by officialdom in eight years. CBP requests notice three hours in advance of arrival so they can send an official; it turns out Officer Alvarez drove out from Bridgeport, an hour and a half away from our landfall. We came ashore bearing a folio stuffed with the legacy documents of many past clearances, our passports, and boat stamp and ink pads. Disentangled from hugs with loved ones, we pulled ourselves together to get the official work done. It’s usually a series of papers to complete, declarations of what’s on board, crew lists completed in triplicate, etc. A little awkward while standing on a dock, I thought, but that’s OK, and just asked Officer Alvarez what we needed to do. And he gave us the most unexpected response:

“Welcome home, family! Can I take a picture with you?”

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Love this kid but his eyes are closed in 90% of the pictures

And THAT, my friends, was clearance back into the USA for our little crew. Oh, he did take the copy of our Bermuda port exit papers before leaving, but there was no lengthy process of forms and questions and stamps and judgment: it was a warm welcome, pure and simple. When that finally sank in, it took restraint for me not to give him a big hug! We spent about fifteen minutes on the dock, just chatting, answering his questions about our trip, basking in his reception and blessings (blessings!).Somewhere in all this…any vestige of arrival anxiety faded.

The kids then took off running down the dock, after Jamie told them they hadn’t REALLY connected the dots around the world till they set foot on shore. I think he actually instructed them to kiss the ground, which unfortunately we did not witness.

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Walking up the street afterwards, Niall soaked in his new surroundings. We got progressively punchy calling out all the American things to see: American flags! American license plates! Cars on the right side of the road! He was full of questions that reminded us our children are strangers in their homeland. It was the first of days answering questions about their environment, establishing norms that are ridiculously obvious to most Americans – just not so obvious to our three.

What’s that? – it’s a fire hydrant. And that stick on it? –it’s to show how deep the snow is, and where the hydrant might be under the snow. NO WAY! –yes, really! The questions and observations keep coming: there is that house a typical American house? (We’re in the painfully quaint hamlet of Stonington village, where charm is carefully molded in a Rockwell model of New England. No, that waterfront cracker box is not typical, and it’s probably worth seven figures.) And we have our moments of awkwardness. The kids expressed some discomfort at being surrounded by “spectacular wealth,” as Niall described it. I had my own predictable freakout in a grocery store that was normal by US standards, but dwarfed most I’ve seen for the last few years…found babbling in the cereal aisle, overwhelmed by options.

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Re-integration is eased in steps. The morning after arrival we sailed to Essex and the Seven Seas Cruising Assocation gathering, but before pulling up the anchor, met briefly with the teacher from Falmouth Academy who has engaged his class in join projects with us this year. Excited to meet him in person, he bowled us over with a welcome-home care package of treats: Hershey’s kisses. Chocolate chip cookies. Vermont sharp cheddar. Local craft beer. Twizzlers. And a gorgeous blueberry pie, because when their class asked over Skype what American foods we missed (Siobhan: “What’s American food?”), Niall chimed in with pie.

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Not so fast, Mairen! Surveying the loot…

Speaking at the SSCA gam both helped us process our own experiences, and benefit from the positive energy of sharing our knowledge. We hope to do a lot more of that while we’re back, and have a few yacht club and bookstore presentations lined up (contact us if you’d like to nominate a location!). But this first little roller coaster ride is just the beginning, and I’m sure there will be plenty of ups and downs as we get to know our home again and the myriad of ways it’s changed since we  left. For the kids especially, who for have grown up outside: Siobhan has no real memories of living in the US, and Mairen’s are few. And in truth, it’s fascinating seeing it through their eyes, unburdened by past experience.

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44 Responses

  1. Congratulations to you all. It is a very special treat to experience home with “foreign” eyes.

    1. It really is! When it happened for me the first time, it was reverse culture shock coming back to a culture I knew, or thought I knew. And that’s the twist here, I guess- for the kids, it’s almost all new!

  2. Welcome back! Have loved reading all your posts and hope this is not the end. Feel like I know your family.
    It will be interesting to hear how the kids react to American life as we know it.

    1. Thank you Nancy! This is definitely not the end…but we’re sure going to enjoy this summer/fall in the USA. Already making plans for next winter (CUBA!).

  3. Babbling about cereal choices! Let me help – take it from my boys – the only cereal they will let us buy is Lucky Charms 🙂

    1. For some reason our guys don’t go the sweetened cereal route so much! And Niall is all Grape Nuts, all the time. It narrows things down at least… but the girls?! I never know.

  4. Welcome home! What a life you have led, and it sounds like your adventures are far from over. Wonderful post full of wonderful experiences (pleasant and welcoming border patrol!?) and so much insight. I think those folks at Roche Harbor could learn a thing or two from Officer Alvarez. Again, welcome home.

    1. Thanks Ardyth! And seriously, what IS it with the Roche Harbor crew? They are unpleasant on the best days. This was the polar opposite of the San Juan clearance experience!

  5. Welcome back to New England! We’re a Boston-area homeschooling family who has been following (and envying) your adventures for a couple of years. Enjoy your summer visit!

  6. Sending you a summer filled with all things good.
    Welcome back to the U.S of A.
    If you travel out west, do let us know!
    xoxox s/v Eyoni

    1. Oh Nancy, I wish we were visiting the PNW! Can’t afford it though. Miss you and will see you again someday/somewhere!

  7. I did the same thing in the grocery store after one winter in the BVI and one winter in Marsh Harbor. I couldn’t get over all the choices – too many, I thought! That was one of the fun things on the Intra-Coastal Waterway on our trips up and down. The grocery stores were all different, depended on the location. Welcome Home! I love following your journey and wish you a happy rediscovery of your homeland. Would love a face-to-face with your children as they experience the good and the bad of our society. Your’s is one of the very best blogs and I enjoy each and every one of them. We are no longer sailors ( we were more like boat-livers, truth be told) and I get to live vicariously through you and several others. That is something my husband does not understand at all; if he can’t be on the boat he doesn’t like to be reminded of the times that we were. Have a wonderful visit home and a grand winter in the BVI.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words Gail, glad you enjoy the blog! How fun about the ICW stores being “localized”- would not have guessed, but it’s nice to know the US isn’t overly homogenized. We are too tall (68′) for ICW bridges so must go outside unfortunately.

  8. Love this! Welcome home. I’ve been following your journey for a few years–I feel like I know you guys! When I talk about your posts to my husband, I refer to you as “the cruisers”. I wish you a wonderful time back in the US. Come to Chicago!

  9. Welcome “home.” As a mom, I’m envious of the worlds your family knows. As a New Englander, I’m tickled that a charming little village in CT was your entry point. You do Americans proud at a time when we’re having a little trouble doing it ourselves. I hope your time here is enjoyable! And I nominate Scranton Memorial Library in Madison for a presentation! (LMK if you’re interested, I can connect you.)

  10. Where will you be sailing while you’re in the US? Have you considered the experience of taking the Hudson through the locks to Lake Champlain (where we sail and would love to meet up with you!)

    1. Hi Susan, not Hudson bound, sorry! We’ll be in New England this summer, the Chesapeake in Sept/Oct, then heading back to the Caribbean from somewhere in the Southeast in Nov/Dec.

  11. Yesterday I watched your interview with the Delos crew on raising a family at sea (which was filmed in South Africa), and today you’re back home in the States! Wow, that is some FAST sailing. 😉

    Well done on raising wonderful kids while following your dream. America is always different once viewed from the outside.

    1. Renee, thank you! It’s so true re: always different once viewed from outside. The odd thing with our kids… they don’t remember being inside before. It’s all new. Will be interesting how this summer/fall go while we’re back!

      Just got to watch Delos’ video this morning. We had fun doing our bit and it shows how much we love those guys! Excited to be sharing our story and appreciate their help to get the word out. Fast…LOL! yes!

    1. Hi. It’s on the SV Delos’s Patreon page at the moment, for those how support the Delos Crew. But they always release them to YouTube a week after releasing them on Patreon. I’ll be happy to post a link once on YouTube if you like, and assuming Behan doesn’t mind.

      It was a really good interview, part 1 of 2 (or more) it looks like.

  12. Great to see you are back home safe, we have loved reading your adventures for many years, well before we purchased our own yacht.

  13. Welcome back, Totem! It’s been an amazing ride just following your posts over the last few years. You’ll be going through some culrure shock (giggled at the babbling confusion in the cereal isle–you might need an escort at Costco!) but who better prepared than the Totem crew! Enjoy reconnecting but don’t wash the boat–not yet.

  14. It would be great to see you talk about your travels here in the San Francisco Bay area. I have no real idea of what would be the best place to sponsor such an event though.

    1. Hi Max, typically, a yacht club or outdoor organization (e.g. REI, Patagonia). But we aren’t planning to come to the west coast, so they’d need a budget to bring us out, which I think is unlikely to happen.

  15. Being strangers in a semi familiar place is an odd feeling. I love the idea that so many more people will hear about your travels and experiences – and about cruising. Hope you enjoy rediscovering America. All the best to you all for the next chapter in your lives.

    1. Thanks Sarah! We aren’t stopping cruising, just visiting the USA. The next “chapter” I guess is when we head to the Caribbean, in about five months.

  16. I hope the Totem Crew doesn’t mind me posting the Delos interview here:

    It’s a great interview, and I can’t wait for the next part.

    I saw someone mention, or ask about, having you guys speak about your travels. I know that if someone were going to talk about their circumnavigation near where I lived, You wouldn’t be able to keep me away. Unfortunately, I live in England, and when people sail from here, once they discover warm waters and that ellusive thing we call sunshine, they don’t come back. LOL

    1. Don’t mind at all Renee– thanks for posting! Would love to speak in New England but there’s the little matter of an ocean in the middle. 😉

  17. Just catching up on your return travels and welcome back to the land o way to much! The first grocery store trip for us was just that – a trip. It hit me again just a year or so ago when I went to buy toothpaste. The array of choices is just stupid. Should you make it to the PNW before you sail south again let us know. Enjoy the time with family and friends!!

    1. Thanks Rennie & Denny – it is wild, isn’t it, that reentry? We would love to see you and your family (hello ALL GROWN UP!) but no plans for the PNW in the cards, unless the Travel Fairy shows up with plane tickets.

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