By Lara Grosjean
Just over 17 years ago, on Valentine’s Day in 2003, I was at a lovely little wine bar in Colorado Springs called Shuga’s, talking to an attractive man at the bar. Over the course of the evening, he told me that he was an engineer but wanted to quit his job and sail around the world. He had grown up in Portland, Oregon and had been sailing since he was a young boy. He read Joshua Slocum’s book, Sailing Alone Around the World, and had dreamed of doing something similar ever since.
I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I sailed Sunfish sailboats in the warm green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I had never been on a boat with an “inside” but I loved to travel and was intrigued by this man who was so passionate about his goal. However, I was coming off years of working various jobs and scrambling to find ways to fund my hobby-turned-lifestyle as a modern pentathlete training to make the Olympic team. I told him I just wasn’t the type to live out of a suitcase and would want some other source of income if I were going to sail around the world.
Fast forward to November 2004 when Joe and I got married in Malaga, Spain, and then, a month later, opened our first climbing gym in Monument, Colorado. There are all kinds of stories to tell about that gym but I will save them for another time. While it gave us a great introduction to running a business and building a community, the location in Monument wasn’t ideal for many reasons, most of them related to the building’s ownership.
At that time, Joe and I lived in downtown Colorado Springs and often went on walks or runs with our young son in the baby jogger. Joe would look wistfully at the buildings we passed and say, “That would make a great climbing gym.” Usually I would look up and laugh as I saw him gazing at the First Presbyterian Church or some other unavailable location. But one day in the summer of 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, we spotted a tiny dusty “For Sale” sign in the corner of the old Ute-70 theater at the corner of Nevada and Kiowa. The building had been part of a larger land deal but had gone into foreclosure. I had been inside when it was a strange antique store, with terracing built out along the inclined rows of seats to accommodate the large pieces of furniture. I remembered the vast empty space and tattered movie screen and Joe must have thought the same because we looked at each other and said, “Now that would make a great climbing gym.”
It’s hard to remember but at that time, climbing gyms were not the presence in our society that they are now. We had to convince the owner of the building that it was a worthwhile venture and that we were responsible people, not interested in putting our customers at risk without taking proper precautions to safeguard their lives. Eventually he agreed and, with a new set of business partners, we launched CityROCK on December 26, 2009.
In the early years, Joe and I worked in all aspects of the gym. The downtown location was significantly busier than the Monument gym and we eventually closed that location to focus our efforts on a place where we didn’t have to battle with landlords over basics like having reasonable temperatures and clean bathrooms. As the years went by, we were gradually able to replace ourselves in various departments with many amazing staff members that are still around today.
Suddenly, we looked around and saw that we had a viable business that could potentially provide some income for a sailing trip around the world. We also had three children and good health. If we were going to make Joe’s dream come true, now was the time. Our oldest had a few years before ninth grade and he was adamant that he wanted to physically attend high school in Colorado Springs.
So, we wished the staff good luck, dumped a whole lot of responsibility on their plates, bought a boat and took off. Three and a half years later finds us in Grenada, 130 miles short of our circumnavigation goal. After 1.5 years sailing on our own around the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Caribbean to Texas, we joined a rally called the World ARC (WARC) to finish our trip with other boats that would provide a support network and companionship via other family boats.
The rally begins and ends in St. Lucia, which is 130 miles north of Grenada, where we are currently located. When we left Cape Town, South Africa on January 4, 2020, we had a friend of ours on board from the first part of the WARC rally. Her name is Gemma and she is English, but has been living in Hong Kong with her husband and two children for several years. During the course of our six weeks together, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, her family back in Hong Kong went from being concerned about the coronavirus in China to wearing masks around the city to having school cancelled to leaving for England.
We followed all of this via satellite e-mails and limited communications from St. Helena, a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic. Gemma was obviously personally impacted and I felt her pain, but I admit I was a bit detached, thinking that this was like SARS a while back – a vague disease that was plaguing the eastern part of the world but wouldn’t stretch tendrils across the oceans to personally affect my life. Ah, those were the days.
It wasn’t until we left Brazil and were on the last long leg of our trip that the coronavirus finally caught up with us. During a two-week trip at sea, the radio conversations each night were all about any tidbits of news we had gotten from home and the possibility of going through quarantine when we reached Grenada. Quarantine? Didn’t two weeks at sea count for anything? Luckily, Grenada still had zero cases of COVID-19 (as we learned to call it upon reaching shore) when we arrived so, although some of the marina staff were wearing gloves and masks, the actual threat of the virus seemed far away and they were not yet imposing quarantine on boats arriving from elsewhere.
Nevertheless, we quickly went to the store and stocked up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and bleach, which were still available in large quantities on the shelves. After a year and a half of provisioning the boat in a range of countries, many of which received supplies only periodically, I had been looking forward to having access to stores stocked with familiar products, that I could buy at my leisure. Instead, I was once again filling shopping carts and engaging in Tetris-like manipulations to cram everything into our tiny, dorm-sized refrigerator and mini freezer.
Every day we heard about new countries closing their borders to boats and planes and our options narrowed. The WARC boats were supposed to spend a few days in Grenada, then travel on our own schedule to St. Lucia, where there would be a series of celebrations to mark the end of our circumnavigation. Instead, the WARC cancelled all activities and handed us our certificates early, essentially saying that we were close enough for their purposes. St. Lucia was closing and Grenada announced that any boats that left could not come back so we decided to stay put for the time being.
In the background of all of this, I had regular communication with our amazing GM, Heather Robinson, who was calmly and decisively helming the ship back home. We had agonizing discussions about the virus, the impact to our members and guests, our role as members of the larger community, the financial impact to all of us, and how long we could last if we closed. At that time, no one was talking about aid packages to businesses or enhanced unemployment benefits so it was incredibly stressful. Heather forecast our expenses against our cash in the bank and it just doesn’t take long for it all to disappear. On top of that, we heard rumors that businesses that voluntarily shut down might not be eligible for any aid packages that eventually made their way through Congress.
With Heather on the ground, urging a closure, we agreed that it needed to happen. We had hoped that maybe we could reopen after a week or two for members only, with more space between climbs to allow for social distancing, but the governor’s order to close all gyms and restaurants came down that same evening and was later extended to close the gym and pub through April 30. Now, with more information available, it’s easy to see that it was the right thing to do. The Ute & Yeti is still able to offer take-out (For more info click here: theuteandyeti.com/carryout) and the CityROCK staff is working to find ways to continue to build our community and give people reasons to smile, even during these challenging times.
Like everyone else, it seems that we will have to make the best of our time in limbo. Most of our circumnavigation has felt rushed, with short visits to countries that would require months to properly visit. So, at last, we have long days to spend in this country, which just implemented a strict shelter in place order which only allows us to leave our places of residence for groceries or medical treatments. This is a great step for the people of Grenada and I’m happy that their government is moving swiftly to contain their small outbreak (at this time they have 9 cases, all linked to the same person who arrived on an aircraft a short time ago).
For us, it just means that Grenada is just one more country that we will get to know on the surface, from the outside. In some ways, life on a boat is very much like sheltering in place. We have regularly spent long periods of time at sea in a small space that we couldn’t leave. The children are accustomed to home school life and we don’t have to work our way through all the unpleasant adjustments that come with it at the beginning. We have a rhythm to our days and we know how to move through them. In many ways, we have much more freedom than most people around the world right now. Our “place” where we shelter is portable so we can move around the island and explore it from a distance. We are allowed to be in our “yard,” which we have interpreted to be an ample amount of sea space in which to swim. While our internet access is limited based on where we choose to anchor (some places have a signal and some don’t), we are used to living with limited access and are grateful to have any at all.
We join all of you in doing our part for the world, by spending time with the people around us and no one else. For many of us that are lucky enough to be surrounded our loved ones, this time offers us exactly what we say we want – more time to spend with the people we care about. Hopefully we can appreciate it in spite of the worries and stress that come along with it.
The story that began at Shuga’s 17 years ago is currently on hold 130 miles short of the end of an important chapter, but I feel confident that, like everyone else’s stories that have been paused by this crisis, our story will continue much as it has in the past. Thanks to all those of you who have supported CityROCK over the years and have made this journey of ours possible. I look forward to seeing you in the near future at CityROCK to hear how your stories have unfolded and sharing more of ours. Until then, stay well, stay healthy and stay connected but socially distant.