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For your first birthday: the world

A mother’s musing on spending her son’s first year cruising the Caribbean

For your first birthday: the world

A mother’s musing on spending her son’s first year cruising the Caribbean

To Dash, on your first birthday:

It’s 4 a.m., and you sleep soundly in your berth. Today you are 1 year old. I barely believe it, though I barely remember my life without you, either.

It is our fourth month cruising aboard Dirty Diapers, our 41-foot Beneteau sloop. You, me, Pop and Ruggles, your four-pawed sister.

Dirty Diapers rocks gently at anchor. With views of the whale-rendering depot at Petit Nevis, we sit alone. We are headed toward Mustique, home to such celebrities as Mick Jagger. He’ll probably still be performing when you’re attending concerts.

I have one regret: I wish you were old enough to remember our adventure. We decided to sail before you were walking. Scampering around. It was the safe choice. You are easily transportable, too, though it does get more difficult the farther south we go, farther from established cruising areas. I often find myself grumbling about the islands’ dinghy docks … or lack thereof: “Would it be that difficult to build a floating one?” Your dad lifts you — strapped in your car seat/convertible stroller — up to me. It’s not easy lugging you onto a dock built for tankers.

When it comes to memories, perhaps the early voyage wasn’t the right choice. There are so many experiences we’ve had. So many lessons for you to learn. I want you to remember them.

Don’t let people, or your own fears, stand in the way of accomplishing a dream — Some people thought me crazy to take you sailing. Some still do. I wondered myself. Unlike Pop, I’m not an experienced sailor. On several occasions I considered turning back. This trip wasn’t an easy decision. Even leaving a Hollywood career for this voyage wasn’t taken lightly. But as I considered, I often thought about my own childhood. My favorite memories revolve around time spent as a family, walks around the Cooper River hand-in-hand with my dad, hours spent side-by-side with my mom as she patiently taught me to play piano. My favorite part of the day now is morning, when we bring you into the V-berth and all of us — even Ruggles — crowd together as you drink your bottle. This usually ends in Pop dancing with you around the saloon, singing off-key Calypso only to be drowned out by your belly-laugh. As I witness this, I am certain — maybe the most certain I have ever been — that we made the right decision.

The world is getting smaller; enjoy it while it lasts — From St. Barts (where you loved my sushi with wasabi), we sailed to Sint Eustatius, also known as Statia. We stepped off the boat and into a bygone time. As we headed for The Quill — Statia’s dormant volcano — we trudged up Oranjestad’s Slave Path, passed the old fort where the first salute to an American ship rang out during our War of Independence, and through beautiful Dutch neighborhoods dating to the 1630s.

It wasn’t hard to imagine the days when the island bustled as a major port, the “Golden Rock” as she was known. But changes are happening rapidly. A jaunt to the Bequia Fruit and Vegetable Market for homegrown produce ended in me buying garlic with tags reading “Imported from China.” And then there was the breathtaking anchorage at the Pitons in St. Lucia. We sat in the cockpit watching the sun set behind the majestic peaks, enjoying the unbelievable scenery around us. That night, I rushed above. Fire! The woods were in flames. The next morning, we learned the land was being cleared for a new hotel. Some call this progress.

Be spontaneous — A sticky afternoon haunted us as we sailed the Guadeloupe Passage. The heat was unbearable. You were beating it with a nap; we weren’t. On a whim, your dad turned the boat into the wind, and we took turns diving into the sea. With shampoo, our baths in water 2,378 feet deep were just what we needed to laugh again. I thoroughly enjoyed every second — that is until the theme song from the film “Jaws” played in my head too loudly to ignore: ta-DUM … ta-DUM … ta-DUM. … You’ll see that movie someday.

Learn from everyone — Dominica … my favorite island so far. Beauty is everywhere, in its lush forests, its affable people. Unlike other places where hustlers hawk their services, the hustlers here organized and educated themselves. They offered something more, something different, a true appreciation for their natural wonderland.

We hired 22-year-old Eddison. He started working at the age of 7, with only a surfboard to paddle out to cruisers. Ultimately, he saved enough for an outboard to power the boat he built from local white pine. Now his specialty is giving tours along the Indian River, a stretch of tropical exuberance where bloodwood trees rise out of the shallows, where fierce Caribs once transported their goods. Within seconds, I’m overwhelmed as he tells us about the flora — in both their common and Latin names. And my eyes widen further as he strikes up a conversation with other boaters in fluent French, which he learned from guiding tourists from Martinique. I was lucky enough to have had formal schooling. But sometimes, Dash, the real education comes from talking to people from all walks of life.

Embrace diversity — In Dominica, a hulking, bleary-eyed Rastafarian shuffled toward the two of us in a narrow alley. Your stroller got caught in a grate. The man leaned over, complimented you on your “major set of wheels,” and pulled you out. Before going on his way, he ordered, “Be cool, little, fat, white boy.” You awarded him with a smile.

Embrace solitude — After St. Kitts, we needed a break from the crowds. On Nevis we found a perfect little beach. Pop strolled off; Ruggles lagged behind him. We sat under a coconut tree. You watched a bird perched on a stump left behind from a hurricane. Moments passed. Complete silence. Each lost in our own thoughts, and we were all happy.

Always realize and appreciate how lucky you are — I was profoundly affected by Montserrat. Every Caribbean cruiser should stop there. I first learned of the island July 19, 1995. The Soufriere Hills volcano had erupted the previous day after 400 years of dormancy. To this day, gases escape. I must admit there was an excitement as we headed there. Seeing an active volcano was something that neither your dad nor I had experienced. In the distance, we could see the fumes. Closer in, we smelled them. George Christian, our taxi driver, had clearance into the abandoned “exclusion zone.” Within seconds the devastation became our reality. Cars lost in ash, homes with only roofs visible, the entire city of Plymouth buried. Everywhere we looked, labors and dreams ruined.

There was another element. George Christian told us what it was like — the eruptions, the rivers of lava, the 19 farmers who were incinerated as they tried desperately to harvest their fields.

Everything — and I mean everything — was described as “before the volcano” and “after the volcano.” Before the volcano, the dock was built for the cruise ships; after the volcano, none came. Before the volcano, Plymouth bustled with 11,000 people; after the volcano, nearly everyone who could leave the island did.

You know, it’s interesting, Dash. I was a freshman at Stanford University during the 1988 earthquake. My campus suffered more than $100 million in damage. And I was in Los Angeles during the 1994 earthquake. I lost my home. I knew victims of the L.A. riots, the Malibu mudslides and fires, and, most tragically, Sept. 11. But with all of that, your dad said it best: “There are always alternatives. We live in a big country; we can pick up and move away.”

There are few alternatives on a 20-square-mile island, and yet the people of Montserrat still love their angry home. George Christian said he moved to England but he returned after only eight months. “I came home.” He found his alternative on a limitless spiritual plain. He truly appreciates how lucky he is.

That evening, as I handed you down from the tanker dock — car seat and all — to your dad waiting in the dinghy below, I grumbled. Maybe, Dash, maybe it’s not just you who could learn something from this trip.

Happy birthday. Love, Ma.

Tara McCann Beavers put aside a Hollywood career as Francis Ford Coppola’s producing partner to cruise the Caribbean with her husband and infant son. She will be filing periodic dispatches from Dirty Diapers, their Beneteau 41.