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Christmas & the Sailing Socks

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Christmas in Antigua, 2017, with Popeye, Olive Oyl and a photo of our original crew. Photography by Jan Hein

In 1988 we reached the west coast of Mexico after an arduous journey from the Pacific Northwest. Our tiny crew of three – Papa, Mom and toddling son – were met there by hometown friends. It was December and they were on holiday; together we would celebrate Christmas. Packed in their bags were treats, boat sized toys and three very flat, red socks. The stockings, made of felt and adorned with dripping faux snow, were symbols of the season that warmed our tired, salty souls.

During the next year, the socks voyaged on with us, some 8000 miles, giving plenty of time to embellish them with our names and that first Christmas port. The following year, I added to them some beads and recorded our second yuletide anchorage. After that, it became a habit of writing our December 25th whereabouts on the felt and as years flew by, it was a challenge to make it all fit.

Santa and our son on our first cruising Christmas. Photography by Jan Hein
Santa and our son on our first cruising Christmas. Photography by Jan Hein

As this December rolls around, I’ll pull them out again. They’ll hang against the hull displaying thirty dates and destinations; three decades of Christmas past squeezed into the space of a foot. They are signs of Santa’s impending arrival, so simple and inexpensive, yet they have untold value in the stories and memories of our cruising years.

St. Barth, 1990, was our reward after a lumpy trip south from Bermuda. On that passage, Santa found our three year old at sea and he in turn found a stuffed bear on deck wrapped in a damp, brown paper bag. Natty Christmas tunes poured from the radio as we neared the island chain. Our feast on the evening of the 25th, created by a UN assembly of cruising friends, was a table laden with homeport traditions- cassava pie, potato dumplings, yule log cake and enough ham to stuff a turkey.

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On Anguilla in 1991, we were at the table of a friend’s restaurant, toasting the season with sorrel punch. Our five year old son held a menu, looking for clues to the content with fresh reading skills. His finger tracked the lines, back and forth, until finally his face lit the room. “FISH!” he announced with pride. “I want fish!” 

Our Christmas crew, St. Barth, 1990. Photography by Jan Hein
Our Christmas crew, St. Barth, 1990. Photography by Jan Hein

Those socks kept cruising and on the way to Nevis in 1994 we found an unmarked inflatable complete with a 25 horse. In bucking seas we lassoed the dinghy then announced the find on the VHF. The owner, a charter captain in St. Barth, insisted we return it immediately. After we stopped laughing we replied, “Sorry mate, we’ve got a date with Christmas in Nevis,” which was where he found us one week later.

In 1995 we tanked our boat down with food, fuel, water and those tiny red socks for the long sail home to Washington State. Each year there was dutifully recorded until our son flew the nest. In 2006, his sock went to college and ours again got underway. 

Down the coast we sailed that year through calms and storms until one blew us into Costa Rica. Our anchorage at the Puntarenas Yacht Club was decked out with lights, trees and ornaments, ready to greet the season. The cruising community, as diverse as their boats, hatched a plan for Christmas Eve. Unanimously they voted on the Red Dragon Chinese Restaurant, not for the food or ambience, since both were sketchy, but because it was the only place open in town. Somehow, it was perfection.

The sailing socks hold wonderful memories of Christmas past. Photography by Jan Hein
The sailing socks hold wonderful memories of Christmas past. Photography by Jan Hein

One Christmas morning we drug anchor through St. Martin’s Grand Case, unaware of disaster until St. Nick knocked on the hull. Another year we watched him ski through Road Bay in Anguilla. In Antigua, we witnessed the red-suited man stagger down the road, exhausted from his long haul or a tad too much tipple of holiday toddy.

Through all the miles, our travels were recorded in log books, journals, and the school writing of our growing son. Some are on the boat; others buried in storage; some we cannot find. But the memories of all our December 25ths are gathered in one place, woven into those red socks. The initial cost to make them was minuscule but there’s untold value in the history they hold. 

These days, when the stockings come out for their annual display, the question comes up about the future. What will we do when there’s no more room? Should we flip them over and write on the back? Make a new one to hang beside the original? Scarf in a new piece? The thought of messing with tradition is unpleasant so we stay the course, squeeze in another year and find a spot to anchor another Christmas port. 


Writer, photographer, and sailor, Jan Hein calls the Caribbean home when she’s not on a boat in Washington State. janjhein@gmail.com

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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