Sailing mavericks, unapologetically motoring

Sailors, like fisherman, can be a little boastful. Fishermen are better at it – complete with battle reenactment, culminating in outstretched arms indicating size. Sailors’ stories aren’t much different – a battle against the elements and with photographs! Of course, photographed waves appear small, so you have to double or triple the size to be accurate. Everybody knows this, really… Sometimes a boast smarts: like those from sailing purists, so called because they sail everywhere. Mostly.

Our sailing purist friends in Seychelles didn’t intend the slight in their boast, “why didn’t you just sail her in. We sail into the anchorage all the time.” We had radioed for a dinghy tow into the anchorage ½ mile away after our oil filter burst, rendering us engineless. I pointed out that wind oscillating between 0 (zero!) and 30 knot blasts on the nose made a very long ½ mile! They shrugged. I could’ve added a counter boast about our passage to Seychelles from Chagos. Roughly 1,031.27 nautical miles that we did in 6-days with the aid of 1 pint of diesel. Their trip was near to three weeks because their route put them into 0 (zero!) wind; and motored so many hours that they had to flag down a passing ship for more.

dinghy tows sailboat

Happily taking a tow, er, barge assist in Seychelles

Another crew that inquired as to why Totem’s diesel appeared to be running when the wind dropped below 8 knots. In a light catamaran they remained unglued in ghosting air. We get sticky and usually find 3 knots of boatspeed isn’t enough. On another day when navigating through a coral strewn atoll, they radioed ahead asking incredulously, “is your engine on?” “Of course,” I said, “so we can maneuver around uncharted bommies.” A chuckling reply came back, “we’re sailing around them fine”. Easy when you’re following, I thought, but didn’t say.

Perhaps my favorite was the crew that boasted of cruising so long that they found a simple approach to cruising is most satisfying, “just like Lin and Larry” without all junk new cruisers have. In that moment, I really wanted to ask if their gas generator was running any better, but it was hot. They switched on navigation electronics, started the diesel engine, and engaged the transmission. Not exactly like Lin and Larry.

sailboat in tropical water

Motoring for close-in caution in Maldives

A boast at its core is an expression of prideful accomplishment. As such, I confess to boasting now and then too, being a sailor and all.

In Indonesia, it’s illegal for foreigners to purchase diesel fuel. The sole purpose is to be daunting, to weed out sailors with less fortitude! No, it isn’t really, but I recall hearing a sailor making this point in a silly boast. Mostly the quirky diesel law proved a minor inconvenience. Fishermen, with outstretched arms, were always happy to sell us diesel from their onboard supply. One exception was in small city of Jayapura on the north side of New Guinea. It’s a conflicted area with an ongoing, hidden ethnic war. Foreigners arrived there fall into one of the three Ms: mining, missionaries, or mercenaries.

We didn’t fit the script, which made clearing in a tedious and involving military interrogations. Once cleared a Navy vessel patrolled Totem at anchor. Fun as that was, we were keen to get diesel and move on. The first guy we approached said okay, okay, okay, come back in two hours. When we met the fellow again, he had a change of heart and told us to go away without making eye contact. We had showered, so didn’t understand the disconnect. This pattern followed with other suppliers over a few days. It turns out that secret police were following us and terminating any questionable business. There was one other cruising boat with us, and a little desperate, John and I dinghied around the harbor of wood and steel working vessels and found the only fiberglass recreational boat. After asking the crew about diesel, they got the boss to speak with us. He was an Indonesian businessman that understood our predicament. After boasting of his friendship with the son of the Minister of Energy, he assured us diesel would be waiting when we came back – just after dark. Without knowing if diesel would be there or if this was a sting, we found the fading twilight was just the veil needed to get diesel flowing. Oddly, gasoline was straightforward to acquire. Dinghy into the fisherman’s dock and wait in line with other fisherman, all smoking. When it’s you turn, saddle up to a 500 gallon open tank of fuel. Using a 5-liter scoop, an attendant plunges elbow deep into gasoline, then funnels it into jerry cans. Easy!

Officialdom may have been prickly, but we had a great time making friends with civilians in Jayapura

Brunei is a tiny country situated along the northwest coast of Borneo. Little about Brunei is inviting to cruisers – mucky water and a more restrictive interpretation of Islam than its neighbors. Dirt cheap diesel is what lures cruisers in. While there and interested new cultural experiences, we booked a tour of the capital city. Though a local guide seemed logical, Zahir, a jovial twenty-something from Qatar was very persuasive, boasting that he was better. “The local people are lazy,” he said.

At the end of a satisfying tour, we employed Zahir’s help in a diesel fuel run. Strictly speaking, it was illegal for foreign sailor types to buy diesel, but this was unenforced – until recently it turns out. Zahir and I set off to the station in borrowed van loaded with jerry cans enough for 125 gallons. Pulling in, station attendants recognized Zahir. The moment wasn’t like seeing a friend, more like spotting a pickpocket in the crowd. They began waving us away and cursing when we didn’t pass. A wee bit nervously I said to Zahir, “I don’t want to cause trouble.” He looked at me with a big smile saying, “No problem, don’t worry.”

With a bundle of Brunei dollars in hand, in a van of unknown origin prepared to carry a lot of flammable fuel, assisted by a jolly Muslim Qatari man was weird enough. Then Zahir dropped to his knees to beg for diesel on my behalf. The outcome was in play: would it be simple shove off was there to be police. Out came one attendant’s cell phone. Then unexpectedly, the employees turned away in disgust. Zahir yelled for me to open the back quickly as he grabbed the diesel pump. In perfect synchronicity, we filled, capped, and loaded 25 jerry cans in a time that would make an Indianapolis 500 pit-crew envious. The money exchange was awkward for me, but persuasive Zahir never stopped smiling.

jerry cans of fuel on a beach

Typical fueling up, cruiser style, on a beach in Brunei

Totem’s recent Panama Canal transit marked the homestretch to complete a circumnavigation. As much as we don’t like schedules, we had one. Our stop in Costa Rica was to wait for weather and… to take on a little diesel. The customs agent was a courteous, tedious i-dotter and t-crosser that couldn’t accept Behan as co-captain, being a woman and all.

Intending to be there for a day or two only, we cleared in and out at the same time to expedite the process. For fuel top-up, we intended to use the taxi-to-fuel station supply chain. More work than the one fuel dock in the area, but price per liter is considerably less. The taxi-diesel supply chain snagged on a technicality we’d not foreseen. Taxi driver asked for our papers and upon seeing our clearance he said the fuel station could not sell to us. Our supply onboard wasn’t too bad, but with average windspeed of approximately 0.00 (zero!), a little more diesel meant we might reach Chiapas, Mexico with more than vapors in the tank.

Our anchorage neighbors were stunned at this news and quickly surmised our predicament. “How much do you need?” they asked. Twenty-five gallons was all; they offered to sell us some of theirs. Out came the jerry cans once again. The next morning, we were northbound ready to sail, motor-sail, or just power along as conditions allowed. Thanks to the cruising community; specifically, the fine people on a boat named Liquid.

One final boast.  On April 7, 2018, the Gifford family, Jamie, Behan, Niall, Mairen, and Siobhan, motored Totem in 0 (zero!) knots of wind into the bay at Zihuatenejo, Mexico to complete a circumnavigation…mostly by sailing.

Jamie originally titled this article Liquid, in homage to the 50′ ketch Liquid and her crew and an irresistible pun with the liquid (diesel) they provided us; it ran in 48 North this spring. We look forward to seeing Marc & Laura again when they sail north to Mexico; below, anchored near Totem in Playas del Coco. The only true purists we know? Impressive navigators in Papua New Guinea, like the family from Brooker island in the picture at the top.

sailboat at sunset

Guests on a boat: how our friends nailed it

“Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” When Benjamin Franklin said this, he wasn’t thinking about fitting two families – a total of nine adult-sized humans  – into a 47’ boat that technically sleeps six, for ten days. So why did things go so well when our friends visited Totem in Panama a few months ago? Partly because we already knew how well we clicked, individually and as a group. But also because the Waters family (or to fellow boaters, the Calypso family, because you are known by your boat name) groks sharing small spaces. They’ve cruised on a 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter. They GET it. (pictured above at a historic fort in Panama: our two families plus the crew of Utopia.)

Disclaimer: I’m not going to provide a packing list here. Yes, we do have a standard document for guests coming aboard Totem. It’s partly a checklist directing prospective guests as to how to pack what they’ll need, what to leave behind. It also previews what to anticipate about boat life for everyone to be comfortable on board. (Spoiler: never ever turn on the faucet unless you are using every drop that comes out! THE HORROR of water wasted stuns us all into speechlessness.) Because the packing directions vary based on where we are, what season it is, and what kind of sailing (or not sailing) is expected – the content is customized every time. As I edited our Totem Guest Prep file for the Waters family I kept cracking up while deleting whole sections about life aboard, because thanks to their prior years of experience living aboard and cruising there was very little orientation needed. So, sorry, no checklist: this is about how to be a good guest on a boat.

So, what makes a good guest on a boat?

Mindful of scarce resources

Utilities and the basics of everyday life readily taken for granted on shore (power, water, internet, the ability to refill the snack bin) are constrained resources on Totem. Space, too, is in limited supply. Constrained resources are a big deal on a boat and can be a big challenge for non-boaty visitors. Orientation to what we have (and what we don’t) is in an advance letter to help them prepare for those divergences from everyday life, like the Navy Shower.

I may have thwacked down a faucet turned on to full flow once, which frankly I have to do with my own teens too. But that’s about it. The Calypsos integrated easily because they had awareness, respect, and the needed dose of flexibility to keep things smooth.

Me, Karen (Utopia) and Nica (Calypso)… photobomb by Nica’s son Julian, Niall wondering what the heck we are doing…

Courier service!

Isn’t it amazing how you can have a need, order what you need online, and have it at your door in lickety-split time? I guess it is, but that’s NOT our reality! We may go (many) months. It’s one of the ways in which cruising is good for practicing gratitude and minimalism: when you have to wait six months for that Shiny Thing, you are either VERY appreciative of it when it arrives, or find it wasn’t necessary and skip ordering it altogether.

When visitors come aboard, the understood quid pro quo is that they’re bringing things for us. Possibly a lot of things. I’m pretty sure we told our crew Ty that it was one duffle bag for him, and one for the boat when he last flew to meet Totem in Namibia! Nica and family arrived four months since our last access to “stuff” and the shopping list included everything from quality sketch pads to books to shampoo (one lone bottle thwarted their goal of traveling all carry-on but they didn’t flinch).

Minimizing our cost

We live on a thin budget. When we invite guests, we take care of them, but that’s within the limits of our very frugal life. Gotta go somewhere? Hoofing it or public transport. Eating in a restaurant? An extravagance not to anticipate. We expect to take care of our guests, and we expect them to be OK with the way we live. If we make plans to do anything on shore, we assume we’re doing Dutch and everyone pays their way.

Nica and family went one better. We walked together to find a grocery store near where they met us in Puerto Lindo, Panama, that would cover us during their stay. It was a good leg stretch, with good company, and helping hands to carry provisions back to the boat – and, it turned out, a friend who didn’t let me pay for any of it. Chipping in to cover your part is welcome. Subsidizing the whole grocery stock-up is awesome! Later in San Blas it was lobster from passing dugouts, produce from a visiting boat. They didn’t just cover their share, they lightened the whole burden. This gets you invited back!

Nica in Totem’s cockpit, underway in Guna Yala

Remembering who is on holiday

Our visitors understood that while they’re on vacation, we’re not. (Because cruising looks good, but we still have things to keep up with: beyond everyday maintenance, Jamie’s advising customers about new sails, we have coaching clients to connect and respond to, etc.). Our choice of destination some days had to be Where The Cell Tower Was, not necessarily where the most awesome beach or snorkeling reef or interesting village was.

Nica, Jeremy and family didn’t expect us to be cruise directors with a planned social schedule. We definitely had a more relaxed everyday routine, which was great all around. Their presence ensured seeking out experiences we might have passed on were they not on board. And much of the time they’d figure out a bunch of their own entertainment, whether it was going for a swim, working out on the bow, or reading a book in the cockpit. They had some of their own keeping up to do as well: Nica filmed for her Tasty Thursday YouTube channel I got to peek over her shoulder to learn about the video editing process.

painting on the boat

Bee takes time out to paint on Totem’s bow in Portobelo, Panama.

Getting involved

Being an active participant instead of a cockpit potato is a corollary of remembering we’re not on holiday. When there’s something to be done, good guests pitch in. The Waters family helped prepare meals. They did a lot of dishes. They kept our (snug) berth spaces tidy. We shared the everyday load more like one big family than two families stuffed together. When our neighbor had trouble with the watermaker on board, Jeremy went with Jamie to help troubleshoot. They hung swimsuits on the lifelines, kept shoes out of the way (who am I kidding that was easy, we barely wore shoes the whole 10 days!), and were always ready to lend a hand.

Jamie and Jeremy checking sail trim as we sail west from Guna Yala

Being flexible

Our cruising mentors would tell their hopeful visitors: “you can choose the date, or the place, but not both.” This actually isn’t too far from the truth, especially for any longer-range planning. We can hone in pretty well as a date approaches, but often it’s just hard to know where we can be: weather plays with our ability to control planning. Our mentors’ guide is a truism ameliorated with a mix of planning, flexibility, and the weather gods.

Nica and Jeremy’s ideal was to transit the Panama Canal on Totem, a preview for their intentions to bring Calypso through to the Pacific in the future. But as their arrival date approached, it was peak season at the canal and the lag to confirm a transit spot did not match well with the dates on their plane tickets.

We called them with our Iridium GO (yes, you can make calls with it) from a remote corner of San Blas with the news, and some options. They took it in stride, and plans were revised. They weren’t able to go through the canal, but we had a great time cruising around the idyllic San Blas islands instead.

Flexibility is an everyday need, too. Nica sent me a beautiful thank you note after they got back to Virginia. She felt what I did: that despite the fact we believed our odds were good, there was always some chance that packing us all in a small space for a week and a half would eventually create some strain…yet didn’t. She catches the vibe perfectly:

I keep trying to put a finger on what made it so incredible, and it comes back to a couple of things. First of all was the pace. The way we went through the week felt like just the way we like to cruise. Hang out a while, move on when we want to. No need to race somewhere else just because we’d already seen where we are. Need internet? Stay where we are an extra day or two. Want a better anchorage? Pick up and move. Want to see a village, or get onions, or get to access to town? Move. Check weather, make sure we’re not in for horrendousness, and go accordingly.

kids play at tropical island

Kids… going accordingly, off a picture-postcard island in Guna Yala (San Blas)

Lasting reminders

The Calypso crew surprised us with some excellent treats, picked out with thoughtfulness and care for what our crew would appreciate. First, understand that outside North America, maple syrup might as well be liquid gold (I saw 250 ml in the grocery store here – a surprise itself – for $10. That’s not even one breakfast for this crew!). They know we love it and have Vermont hookups. They brought so much we have it in quantity that doesn’t require RATIONING! That’s been YEARS! And chocolate… oh, the chocolate. Many bags of chocolate chips. Nica, I confess to you here, I might have hidden some of the really good stuff for midnight treats while standing watch between Panama and Baja. We have one bag of chocolate chips left (with less than two weeks until haulout time, when the food stores must be depleted before we leave Totem). PERFECT.

We’ve lacked good music on board Totem for a while, and I might have complained about how Hamilton sounds through laptop speakers (not good). They brought (and left) and AWESOME bluetooth speaker which has been a great way to bring music and cockpit movie nights back to Totem. Just about every day I use or benefit from something that they brought and smile remembering their visit.

aprils maple syrup for breakfast

Totem + Calypso teens digging the April’s Maple… excellent Vermont maple syrup! Photo: Nica Waters

We hope the Calypso family comes back. But even more I think we hope they SAIL CALYPSO this way, and come share an anchorage with us. South Pacific plans may be brewing, and that’s all I’m going to say on that.

You can also read about the Calypso’s experience aboard Totem on Nica’s blog, Fit2Sail!

Wet bottom: a haulout story

boats anchored at Isla Danzante Baja

Totem cruises the Sea of Cortez;  in about three weeks, we haul at the Cabrales shipyard in Puerto Peñasco, a small harbor surrounded by the Sonora desert. Typically, boats can go a few years between haulouts. So why now – didn’t we just do this in Grenada, six or seven months ago? Yes, we did, and had an unpleasant surprise. This is the backstory, and what we’ll do about it in Peñasco.

At the time we hauled out in Grenada Totem had gotten nearly three years out of the bottom paint applied in Thailand. That’s a good lifespan for ablative! We chose Grenada to repaint (a relatively safe hurricane season location, affordable rates, cruiser-friendly boatyards). Not only that, but in Grenada we had an opportunity to do a “proper” bottom job on Totem.

Prior to hauling in Grenada, we put on three bottoms on Totem in ten years, representing at least 11 coats of paints and primers and barrier coast. That’s on top of who knows how many layers we bought the Stevens 47 then called “Don’t Look Back.” Even then the hull wasn’t very smooth; over the years, accumulation of bottom paint became progressively uneven. By sand blasting the bottom back to the original barrier coat over Totem’s gelcoat bottom, we’d be able to start fresh. The crew at Grenada Marine would help us get it done right!

sailboat in travel lift slings

Totem gets hauled at Grenada Marine

Blasted surprise

To take down the old paint, a specific grade of sand is used; it’s mixed with water into a slurry that’s blasted at the bottom. This removes paint without damaging gelcoat or epoxy barrier underneath. Except what we found underneath the paint was a big surprise: there was no barrier coat. There was not even gel coat. Just bare fiberglass hull.

fiberglass sailboat hull

Bare fiberglass: not what we expected under the paint

The crew sandblasting stopped work to inform Jamie. I’d like to say it was to inform me, too, but I was happily internet-ing away with wifi in Grenada Marine’s lovely open-air waterfront restaurant. But this discovery… it wasn’t really good news. It wasn’t what anyone expected. The only thing to do was remove the rest of the paint, evaluate the bottom, and then decide on the next steps.

Why bare fiberglass?

We suspect Totem had a big problem with osmotic blisters somewhere in her history. Os-whaaa? Osmotic blisters are bubbles on the hull caused by a reaction between salts (from absorbed seawater) and styrene (a chemical in the fiberglass resin). This reaction causes pressure which can be great enough to push outwards between the fiberglass hull and gelcoat outer skin, creating a bubble (or, blister).

It can also happen pretty easily deeper than the surface: when fiberglass boats are made, they’re mainly constructed from heavy-duty fiberglass roving. But the outermost layer is usually thinner/lighter, to provide a smoother surface so that the last layer before gelcoat is a gentler transition to a smooth outer hull. Because that’s a thin layer of fiberglass, in bad cases of blistering this layer can be affected too: it can create voids by pushing out in that last, lightweight layer of fiberglass. (Side note: we’re not chemical / material engineers; this is just our understanding!)

sailboat without bottom paint

Naked hull

We suspect Totem’s problem had sufficiently bad blistering that a prior owner did what’s called a full peel. That’s when all the gelcoat is removed (peeled), and the hull is allowed to dry (hopefully) to resolve a blister problem. The bottom is then rebuilt by adding a new, thin outer layer of fiberglass and a two-part epoxy resin barrier coat over the top of that.

The crew working with us at Grenada Marine murmured approval at the fiberglass hull. Whoever did it had done a nice job, and they appreciated a good layup. The question was: would the fiberglass be wet? Or dry?

It’s a bigger problem

When blasting was finished and we were waiting for Totem to dry from the wet slurry, Jamie was cautiously optimistic that the bottom wasn’t wet. We really hoped it wasn’t, as this signaled the need for more work and more expense. But the crew supporting us, who we had come to trust for knowledge and judgement, looked at Jamie and said – “I know it’s wet.” How? In even that brief waiting period, he pointed out a sheen on the hull’s surface. This was a sticky, shiny film that is a result of the reaction between the salt and styrene. That only happens if there’s moisture in the hull. Subsequent readings on a moisture meter over a period of days confirmed his observation.

Why did it happen?

The crew may have appreciated that fine layup, but we still had a problem. Well-done fiberglass work aside, there were two unknowns in that job which lead to the moisture problem we faced.

First, we don’t know what kind of barrier coat as applied. We can tell it wasn’t a two-part epoxy resin; we’d have seen that layer that when sandblasting. We could hope that that outer layer of glass was correctly done, but we don’t know.

Second, we don’t know if moisture in the hull which caused the blisters had been dried out before the repair was made, or if there was still moisture absorbed in the hull that got covered over. What we had left is a fiberglass bottom without a gelcoat that would shown blistering from remaining moisture, so we can only speculate.

jackstands supporting fiberglass sailboat

Excavating Totem’s bottom

Somewhere between these missing links of information, Totem’s bottom became a wet hull. Jamie suspects the hull wasn’t wet initially, but has happened over time under our ownership due to the problems with the earlier repairs. Why? Because for our first years of ownership we always floated high on our waterline, and in recent years, Totem has sat relatively low on her lines. OK, OK, we have accumulated trinkets on board and the kids have gotten bigger and there are probably a few more items in lockers than when we moved aboard in May 2018! But these would not add up to the mass required to sink Totem to the point where our stern end has settled down to (and even slightly below) the waterline. Most likely this water weight has slowly accumulated over time.

Now what?

We were reluctant to bury the wet hull under more paint, but had few options. The hull needs time to dry out, Grenada’s humidity and rain makes it a poor choice of location. On the other hand, we had plans to sail for the Pacific coast of Mexico. Where better than the dry desert of Baja, already our anticipated destination for hurricane season? So thin barrier coat and two thin coats of ablative bottom paint were applied: enough to get us to an ideal place for drying out a boat, the low humidity of the Sonora desert. These thin layers are already thinning, which we hope makes the job of going back to bare fiberglass for a proper dry-out an easy one.

Totem will sit on the hardstand in the desert while her crew spends a summer back in the Pacific Northwest. A periodic rinse is good and the rain there is measured in millimeters, so a periodic hose-down to help pull out impurities and styrene will be hired out in our absence. We’ll be back in the back half of October after the Annapolis Boat Show. HOPEFULLY, at that point, the hull will measure dry; then the work to put it back begins. Fairing the hull. Adding multiple coats of two-part epoxy barrier to keep water out. Starting fresh, with new bottom paint.

Grenada Marine

We may have had disappointing news during our haulout at Grenada Marine, but the crew we worked with gets high marks. Part of our decision to haul there was the full-service staff. At other boatyards, you hire in contractors associated with the yard. On one hand, that puts the choice of workers solidly in your hands. On the other, being your own project manager adds risk and time (I’d prefer deal with one point of contact the yard if there are problems, rather than a handful of different contractors). We were allowed to mix DIY work in, which helped us save money on jobs we could do, and everyone who worked on Totem impressed us.

Grenada Marine team

Very happy with the team at Grenada Marine! Just before splashing with a shiny bottom

More on blistering

That’s the story of why we’re hauling out again so soon. Here are a few FAQs about osmotic blistering (and water ingress).

What does it look like?

Osmotic blisters can be the size of a coin, or much bigger – especially if the thinner fiberglass layer is what’s being lifted instead of a bubble of gelcoat.

What do you do if you have blisters?

It’s a question of magnitude: the size, quantity, and depth of blisters as well as the type of hull (cored or solid). Depending on the scope of the problem, they can be dug out – dried – filled, then repainted; if there’s time you can dry the bottom further, and re-barrier coat it.

When blistering is really bad, if you can afford it: peel the (permeable) gel coat, dry out the hull, and start fresh with a new barrier coat. Just, a more effective barrier than was apparently applied to Totem!

How do you dry out?

It’s pretty convenient that we have a low-humidity desert stop ahead. Grenada would have required intervention beyond sitting on the hard to sufficiently dry out. Heat lamps, heat pads, infrared lamps, and other options are available. Glad we can just park in the desert!

How bad can it be?

Osmotic blistering is partly a cosmetic problem of unsightly pox. Mostly, it makes a boat heavier. My dear friend Pam Wall lost 1,500 pounds of water weight absorbed in the hull of her beloved Kandarik, when hauled in Portugual for the better part of a year! This is mainly a practical problem for a boat that now sits lower in the water and may be slower. It can be behind some peskier problems than just making the boat weigh more, too We’ve also heard of dampness being felt on the interior, and potentially causing problems with mold/mildew.

Can the hull integrity be compromised?

Hull thickness, and strength of the layup in the materials, make it less likely. In a cored hull, water ingress can cause more significant problems. If the outer skin is thin, the blister and moisture in it can reach core material. Presumably that’s closed cell, but can still leech and lead to larger areas of delamination. Fortunately this is pretty unusual! Bottom line: it won’t sink your boat.

Further reading

An excellent guide to boat care with good information on the why and how of osmotic blisters, and deep details for DIY fixing (because wow, can this get costly) is Don Casey’s This Old Boat.

Totem and crew are enjoying stops along the inside of Baja on the way north to Puerto Peñasco.

Relaxing view from Grenada Marine's restaurant

Relaxing at Grenada Marine’s restaurant at the end of the day

Circumnavigation, check! What’s next?

At anchor before playa de Balandra, Mexico

Motoring north from La Paz, parched mountains reach up on Totem’s starboard side along a gently winding channel. On the far side of a wide blue bay bask the low desert hills of southern Baja. Tonight we’ll anchor in a quiet bay where the water turns to clear turquoise near shore, and we scan the hillsides with binoculars to glimpse coyotes at sunset.

Leaving this sweet town in the lower reaches of the Sea of Cortez is an inflection point: it starts our last weeks with Niall aboard. In a life that is rich with so many “firsts,” suddenly we’re chalking up the opposite. The last overnight passage as a nuclear family is probably just in our wake. We’re doing our last stretch of route planning with the whole family for crew. I’ll be looking at every hike, every swim, every bonfire on the beach and thinking – this is the last time we’ll do this, before he leaves.

From here we sail to Gulf of California’s far north and haul Totem in Puerto Penasco. Totem will sit on the hard in the Sonora desert for at least three months, and we’ll spend the summer back in the Seattle area – land based for a change, on Bainbridge Island. In October Jamie and I return to the Annapolis boat show for a round of seminars and meetups, then back to Totem with Mairen and Siobhan.

Niall has accepted Lewis & Clark, where classes begin in August. We are thrilled (that explorers are the college’s namesake is only one hint to the excellent fit of this institution for our adventurous son!) and terrified (have you seen tuition rates?). His transition marks an exciting chapter on many fronts. This mama bear may get choked up, but Jamie and I know he’s ready. While I’m sure they’ll miss him, but Mairen and Siobhan have long since anticipated how they’ll reallocate his cabin space to meet their needs.

The family completes a circumnavigation. The boat goes on the hard. The crew goes return to their point of departure. A boat kid goes off to college. I guess that blew some vivid smoke signals: more than I realized since I was surprised to keep hearing: What’s next? The unspoken assumption, almost every time: you’re finished cruising now that the circumnav loop is closed, so, now what?

Sea lions near La Paz

Basking sea lions near La Paz, Mexico

Now what is, in short, continued cruising. Circumnavigation was not a bucket list notch we sought to whittle before calling an end to life afloat. That’s not why we’re out here, so no, we never planned to be finished because we crossed that outbound track. It irks me that these circumnavigating is bundled up with being done, when (for our family anyway) they have exactly nothing to do with each other beyond wanting to complete it as a family (before Niall headed to college) once we realized it was in reach.

Circumnavigating is an achievement we are humbled and proud to have achieved, but it’s what happened along the way to achieving our greater objective: deliberately choosing a different way to raise our family. Growing children in tune with nature, with perspective on the real difference between want and need, with first hand exposure to the natural and societal challenges faced on our planet. Knowledge and experiences we hope will inspire them to be part of solutions, instead of jut another developed-world consumer automaton. This hasn’t changed, and so neither has our intention to continue cruising.

Siobhan and Mairen clowning around - Bahia de los Muertos

Siobhan and Mairen clowning around – Bahia de los Muertos

So what’s REALLY next? Most likely, a couple of years along the coast of Mexico. After 10 years and more than 50,000 miles, Totem needs work– projects that will take time, and funds. The funds trickle slowly so we’ll need a while. I’d love to head back to the South Pacific next spring, but 2020 is the realistic window that we’ll sail again towards Polynesia.

Our lifestyle choice continues to rest on a kind of three-legged stool. The first is that every family member has a say: we must all want to do this. And then, we must be healthy enough. And finally, most practically, we must financially string it together. One of those may change at any time (particularly as the needs of our teens evolve!), but it hasn’t happened yet.

Puget Sound bound

Meanwhile, we’re all excited at the prospect of a summer in Puget Sound. This will be long overdue time with friends and family, people we love dearly and in many cases haven’t seen in a very long time… in most cases since we left, which will be 10 years on August 21. It will be a welcome opportunity to meet up with denizens of Salish Sea we’ve met more virtually over the years, or through this blog and our coaching services, and share time in person.

Let’s meet up!

For folks back in the Pacific Northwest, a few speaking engagements are lining up. These are open to anyone (and more meetups are pending). We’d love to meet readers, so please come and say hello!

  • July 12, 7:00 pm: Seattle Yacht Club. Free, cash bar, pre-registration required; 206-325-1000
  • Sept 11, 6:30 pm: Bluewater Cruising Association, Vancouver, BC.  Details TBD.
  • Sept 14, 7:00 pm: Corinthian Yacht Club, Seattle. Details TBD.

Can we help you?

Our coaching service works from anywhere through video chat sessions. Being back in Puget Sound for the summer gives us even more reach to help gonna-go cruisers in person. Whether planning for the big cruise or a long summer sailing holiday, Jamie and I are available by appointment to help on a variety of fronts. Bring Jamie’s expertise on board for sail handling or sail/rig inspection. 1:1 seminars on navigation, piloting, route planning, and more. Talk to us about systems or gear choices/setup. We’ll go out with you and practice anchoring skills. Affordable rates, plus travel costs – get in touch, and we’ll look forward to meeting you.

Until next time

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence at all that the day we crossed our outbound track, I finished At Home in the World, Tsh Oxenreider’s memoir of her family’s nine month backpack/plane world adventures. Seeking a connection with our history and our plans, we found many with these land bound travelers. Her book also surfaced a quote from Pat Conroy that resonated perfectly and brought peace in embracing an uncertain future. And the point to me, is, it doesn’t matter. We are on the continuum of our life’s journey, forever influenced by experiences, where ever they take us.

Pat Conroy, quoted in the best book I’ve read in a while: At Home in the World.

Regardless of our place on the continuum: the sea has changed us. And having embarked on this journey, we view everyday life through a new lens no matter where the future path extends.

Ruminating further on circumnavigating—what it means to us, how the outside perception strikes us—is more articulately shared in our 48 North article in June. Grab the new issue from stands in the Pacific Northwest next week, or download from June 1 on 48north.com.

Rags From Riches: common pitfalls with cruising sails

Sailing upwind in the Caribbean

Jamie periodically shares his expertise in a technical article: here he reviews typical problems cruisers experience with their sails, and how to address them. For more from the wells of this cruising sailmaker, see tagged posts on the topic.

Way, way back when I was designing sails for crazy people that sailed around the world in the Whitbread, BOC, and Vendee Globe races, the sail inventory budgets were dazzling! A maxi-boat (about 82’ long) mainsail in the 1989-90 Whitbread Race could be $35,000. Racing around the globe competitively required at least 4 mainsails. Add 25-ish headsails and even more spinnakers and you can imagine why sailmakers loved long distance races.

That boom went bust when the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread Round the World Race) organizers limited the entire sail inventory to just 17 sails. Millions of sailmakers weep for the loss. Porsche dealers and Rolex merchants report lackluster earnings because sailmakers stopped comin’ ‘round.

There is a glimmering benefit to all of this. More time for sailmakers and cruising sailors to make better cruising sails. Sailmakers will laugh. Woven Dacron sails shimmer like tin, not gold. Cruising sailors will either malign sailmakers for not listening to them and then delivering a product that’s unimproved in 50 years; or worship their sailmaker because by-golly they make ‘em like the good ‘ol days, with leather at the corners!

New cruising rags take riches that are too little for sailmakers and too much for cruising sailors. So, naturally, neither shares much quality time for the other. Cruising sails remain lackluster. Some are okay. Many are just lousy: poor quality or mismatched sailcloth, poorly sized headsail, junk hardware, and lame details. If you think my judgement harsh, it comes from many occasions that go something like this.

Sailor: I hear you’re a sailmaker. Can you look at my main? It has a small tear.

(10 minutes later)

Me: You’re right, it is a tear.

Sailor: Hey! Why are you tearing it further?

Me: Like tissue paper. Rotten sailcloth. You need a new sail.

Sailor: What? How can that be, my sails are only 3 years old?

Me: Oh, in that case we should also check your headsail for UV damage.

Sailor: WHAT!?!?

Sailmakers aren’t trained to gracefully deliver bad news. The emotional toll is terrible, even before Sailor stumbles onto the worst part. They’re at a remote paradise with bad sails and no way to replace them. Sailor weeps for the loss. I’ve had this scenario play out many times, including a mainsail that was just two years old. Moving forward, this cruising sailmaker presents common problems and solutions for better cruising sails meant to go the distance.

The dream… champagne sailing! The reality… repairs in exotic locations. Fixing a new friend’s sail in the Bahamas

(Note: sailcloth is a really big topic. Laminated sailcloth has a place on some cruising boats, but consequences like mildew and delamination make it a poor choice for many. Therefore, my focus is on woven cloth problems.)

Problem: High aspect sailcloth in sails bound for the tropics

Fibers make warp and fill yarns and woven to make sailcloth. High aspect sailcloth has many more fill direction fibers than the warp fibers. Logically the sail designer pairs high aspect cloth and high aspect sail (tall and narrow) to best manage sail loads. This is fine in temperate regions and seasonal sailing; it’s a serious flaw when cruising the tropics.

UV degrades tensile strength of exposed fibers. The outer fiber layer of a big yarn protects the inner fibers like sunscreen. High aspect warp yarns are tiny, and degrade entirely. This is how the cloth can fail in 2 to 4 years of active tropical sailing. Low aspect sailcloth is a better choice, even on a high aspect rig. Of course, always cover the sail when not in use.

Problem: Underbuilt sails

Sailcloth manufacturers provide recommendations to match cloth weight to sail size and type. Fixed calculations don’t account for context, like the type of sailing to be done, but that’s where the conflicted sailmaker comes in. Conflicted because when a situation warrants heavier Dacron or woven hybrid sailcloth, the cost goes up, followed by sail price that appears less competitive. Underbuilt sails stretch and distort easily, and are more susceptible to UV degradation. Stronger sails cost more, last longer with more reliability when going remote.

There are three ways to do this. One is simply higher weight sailcloth. A better method for boats over 40 feet, roughly, is adding a 2-ply leech. This puts more Dacron only along the leech of the sail where loads are highest. Last is woven hybrid cloth the combines Dacron and Dyneema/Spectra fibers, such as Dimension Polyant Hydranet. This is stronger, lower stretch, and lighter than conventional Dacron – with a premium price. Rags from riches.

Sailing wing and wing

Not underbuilt! Totem underway to Colombia

Problem: Low grade Dacron

Dacron is a Dupont brand name that has come to colloquially mean Polyester fiber woven sailcloth. A point murkier than bright white Dacron: Polyester fibers in sailcloth come in different grades. Quality brands such as Marblehead by Challenge Sailcloth and AP Blade by Dimension Polyant use high tenacity fibers that are stronger, lower stretch, and more expensive. Economy Dacron may suit casual sailing needs just fine, but come up short on long distance sails.

Problem: Headsail size

Multiple headsails sized for different conditions would be nice, but limited storage and more work with shorthanded sail changes makes them impractical. Instead, many full-time cruisers have one or two headsails, plus staysail or storm jib. The trick to this compromise is sizing the primary headsail well. Setting off to sail the world with a 135% or bigger genoa is probably not a good match. While it can be partially furled to reduce sail area, doing so creates a poorly shaped smaller sail with bias loading that can distort sailcloth. Consider conditions where you intend to sail and boat characteristics. I find that 100% to 120% range is enough without being too much for boats reaching out to multiple regions.

Problem: UV cover fail

Mainsail covers and UV covers on furling sails use materials resistant to UV degradation to protect sailcloth. They only work while securely sewn in place. Astoundingly, so many UV covers still get sewn on with thread that rots in the sun. UV resistant cloth and rot prone Polyester thread! Instead, Tenara thread does not rot and will last the life of the cover material.

Jamie repairs the UV strip for a friends headsail on the dock in Panama

Problem: Chafe

Chafe happens. Running with the main plastered into the rigging chafes at stitching and cloth. The pocket covering full length battens gets the worst of it. Rigid battens rubbing against shrouds and spreaders can cut through the pocket after only a few short passages. The solution is Polyester webbing sewn on top of the batten pockets. This provides many years of chafe protection, and help to dampen shock load to battens if they impact the shrouds after a gybe.

Problem: Survey says!

Having read many marine surveys, it’s fair to say that most marine surveyors don’t put much time or expertise into evaluating sails. Often sails get lumped together and reported as “good”. The transaction goes ahead and new owner brings sails into the local loft for inspection. A few days later a dispassionate sailmaker reports the mainsail is ready for the bin. The leech has serious UV damage from not being covered. The genoa may last another season or two if the UV cover gets replaced. New owner curses the surveyor. Sailmaker hands new owner a quote for new mainsail and genoa repair on the way out the door, mumbling something about being late for a regatta, before disappearing into an old reliable Volvo.

Wondering about your own sails? Jamie’s happy to share expertise one on one, just send us an email! Meanwhile, Totem is happily seeking out taco carts in La Paz, Mexico, and excited to sail north up Mexico’s Sea of Cortez this month.

Guna Yala (San Blas) practicalities for cruisers

tropical paradise sailboat

Guna Yala, Kuna Yala, San Blas: an evolution of names for the archipelago that stretches from Panama’s border at Colombia very nearly to the canal zone. Officially “Guna” (the better linguistic match than Kuna) since 2011, the region’s active effort to preserve indigenous culture and traditions creates a draw for many visitors. Here’s what I think is important to know for cruisers in our wake to plan their visit.

Orientation

There is a meaningful divide between “Western” and “Eastern” regions that is worth considering in planning. The personality split begins where boats coming from the canal zone would bend SE if continuing towards Colombia.

chart of San Blas

Western San Blas is most accessible to canal/Colon. It is peppered with cays and atolls that drift further from the mainland: picture-postcard tropical islands surrounded by swimmable clear water. Guna communities are clustered on islands nearer to the mangrove-lined mainland shore.

Western communities were a mix of those which followed traditional practices and those which had abandoned it. Basic provisioning (fruit, vegetables, meat, staples) is available, including some dugouts that venture to sell to cruising boats, nearly all cruising boats of which seem to remain in this area.

By contrast, the eastern San Blas is more sparsely populated by Guna and cruisers (we saw only one other cruising boat). Boats carrying cargo arrive from Colombia; as a dejected couple of travelers told us in the eastern port of Obaldia, there’s no road out. You can fly, or you can join a backpacker boat, either at some expense.

Here the water was murkier; this may have been seasonal, but we were there in the dry season when you’d least expect the effect of river runoff. Peak trade winds chopped the water, and together these factors made eyeball navigation difficult. Between water quality and presumed crocodile hazard, swimming was off the menu.

Rules to respect

Visitors are welcomed, but this is Guna land – Guna rules – and between our guest status and indigenous people’s willful choice to separate from modern norms, important to respect. Here’s a snapshot reference for to what the Guna feel are important for visitors to know and avoid: there’s more in the Bauhaus guide.

Guna Yala regulations, as sourced from the Kuna Yala Cruisers Facebook group

I had to restrain my usual snap-happy self, as many Guna are reluctant to be photographed. Always ask first: “¿puedo tomar foto?” to know if it’s OK. In some (so picturesque!) communities, there’s no photography allowed at all. I wish I could paint the pictures in my head. And Guna women, in mola blouses, red and yellow head scarf, gold septum rings and necklaces, and bands of beading on their legs and arms… they are stunning and tempting subjects. But – no, unless permission is clearly given.

Ask permission

Besides asking permission for photos: you’re effectively asking permission to anchor, and expected to pay for the privilege. Be a good guest. If you are anchored off an island with a community and aren’t approached by anyone, go ashore and ask for the saila (village leader) to pay up. It’s the right thing to do! The morning after we arrived, a poor Guna became quite irate with us because he thought we were trying to skip out on paying (we were getting ready to depart). When we finally found the receipt we’d been given the night before to show him, he was mollified and paddled off, but the reaction made me think – he’d been taken advantage of before.

Anchoring fees are pretty consistent in eastern Guna Yala. We paid $10 at almost every stop. In the west it was a little different; sometimes we were asked for an anchoring fee (even at uninhabited islands, if they were part of the purview of a nearby community), sometimes it was a cost-per-person ($2) for going on the beach. In either case it was good for a month. If you’re zipping through, they can add up!

Guna Yala anchoring receipts

Guna Yala anchoring receipts, on top of Bauhaus’ book

Arrive with cash

US dollars are the currency used in Guna Yala. There are no ATMs, there are no credit cards accepted (there are no roads, or power grid, so…). One family arrived recently and had to borrow money from other boats in order to complete clearance formalities! Kind of shocking planning… granted, it’s unusual.

Bring small bills. If you’ve negotiated a couple of lobster for $10 but only have a $20, there’s probably no change; you’ll be buying more lobster or having none. Small tiendas on Guna islands might make change, but not the dugout on your hip.

Is there trading? No. Well, not really. I wondered, before we got there. But this is not so much a “remote” place as one which has chosen to set itself apart… there is access to Stuff, if people want, and that requires cash. So the bartering that was central to some other corners of the world where we have cruised where Stuff is enough, here it was all about cold hard cash. That said, when I came up short on a mola I wanted to buy, the woman selling it was willing to take a handful of instant coffee packets in lieu of about $10 difference I was trying to make up!

Sailing dugout in Guna Yala

Sailing dugouts are the primary mode of transport, east and western Guna Yala

Provision up

General guidance for Guna Yala is to bring whatever you need, and don’t count on buying anything. That’s a little extreme, as there were small shops on occasional communities. It is limited, so good to plan ahead as have a modicum of flexibility. We actually ran out of toilet paper: PROVISIONING FAIL! Times when it’s good to have friends nearby that will sling you a package of TP!

Veggie stand at a shop on Nargana with a posse of cruisers: pretty typical! SV Aseka and Utopia

In the eastern San Blas. where we were offered coconuts, plantains, locally grown fruit or small fish from passing dugouts. On more populated islands there are probably stores; we were only in little islands, and the one store I saw had little more than rice, dried beans, boxed cereal (?), and canned meat.

In the west, boats visit outer reef anchorages specifically to sell produce and meat to cruisers

Honestly, even with the TP fiasco, we’d have been fine. It was available at small shops in Guna communities, along with a surprising variety of other goods. We’re used to adapting our diet to fit what’s available locally, and it wouldn’t have been much adapting to make it work with what we were able to source in San Blas.

Watch for crocs!

Crocodiles are a very real problem in San Blas – this coastline is theirs, not ours, and they do foray out. Risk exists not just in the murky waters near shore but the gin-clear reefs offshore. Yes, both. Even on the islands away from mangroves and murk, dogs have been taken off beaches and a snorkeling cruiser was attacked (and survived, but not without a helicopter ride to the hospital in Panama City) in 2017. What can you do? Find out through the cruiser’s coconut telegraph (radio nets, Facebook groups, deck-to-dinghy chats) if and where they’ve been spotted, and consider whether you want to get in the water or not. I wouldn’t forgo swimming, I’d just swim with some information.

I didn’t realize

We’d be so disconnected! Cruisers reported “there’s internet here,” and I just believed it. Well, there is, in some parts of western Guna Yala. We found none in the much larger eastern region. The Iridium GO kept us connected, but at a text-only basis. (You can post pictures to a Facebook profile from the GO, but not to a Facebook page…to my chagrin).

Plastic garbage. There is an appalling amount of garbage, some floating in the water, much of it just drifted up on the beach. It’s far, far too much to do anything about. At least those were the only crocs we saw while in Guna Yala.

Crocs of San Blas

Liveaboard community. Gringos have been living aboard (is it really cruising when the western bay where all these boats hang out is only 35 miles wide?) in San Blas for years. There’s a nice collection of some really helpful folks. There’s the inevitable dose of jaded old-timers who seem to have forgotten they are guests and have a skewed view of their “rights.” Whatever. On balance they the driving reason behind this curious distinction between the western and eastern portions of San Blas.

 

Instant coffee is a hit. Who knew! I’ve been working through a hoard of individual serving packets which are very convenient on night watch. When someone stops by, unless they’re a flyby offer to sell fish, visitors are invited into the cockpit to sit in the shade and have a drink. We don’t have sodas on board so it was water or coffee and… well I served a lot of coffee! It would be a great gift item to make nice with the local sahila or a Guna family that you meet.

Next time

If (when? I hope when!) we revisit, I’d plan differently. Mainly, we’d extend our stay, and skew heavily towards eastern Guna Yala. We found the frontier nature of it far more interesting. There was minimal tourism; people had more time; they weren’t only interested in us as potential transactions. Exactly the kind of place we love to sink into and understand better.

Second, I’d extend the stays in individual anchorages, instead of moving on after a night our two (an unfortunate pace driven by necessity at the time). This is a fascinating region, and when you skip through as quickly as we did – you don’t have the opportunity to really connect and understand much of what makes it special. It takes time we couldn’t give to gain that permission and trust.

fishermen on beach with net

Fishermen cooperate for the morning catch

Helpful resources

The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus is an invaluable reference; there’s really not a substitute. The chapter on San Blas opens with an illuminating discussion of Guna history and culture, along with guidance for how to be sensitive to it as a visitor. For details about the islands, it’s the best, and the author has surveyed the region extensively: his charts are the best reference for a coastline which was mostly “unsurveyed” or insufficient for use in our (new!) Navionics charts. They aren’t infallible, but what chart is? We don’t always pick up cruising guides, but I cannot imagine cruising Guna Yala without this one (thank you MM!).

Bauhaus’ chartlets, digitized. Some helpful person turned chartlets in the Bauhaus guide into KAP files you can overlay on your charts (we used OpenCPN for this). Particularly in the eastern territory, murky water hampers visual piloting. Know that Google Earth / satellite imagery isn’t high enough resolution to be useful in many areas, particularly the east. Readily passed between boats on memory sticks, they are invaluable. They are also the intellectual property of Eric Bauhaus! If you acquire and use them, figure out how to pay him. I emailed him, but he never replied… just buy the book, which you can pick up in Linton or Shelter Bay Marina if you didn’t plan ahead.

San Blas Cruisers on Facebook This helpful group is administered by long-term San Blas cruiser/liveaboards who strive to keep information flowing and on point.

Radio. San Blas cruisers have a morning mobile maritime net. It’s a long time since we’ve been regulars on the SSB, but this was very useful for sharing information in an area too spread out for VHF. The 8 meg frequency is posted in the Facebook group. On VHF, 72 is standard hailing for cruisers here.

Totem and crew are in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico… playing catch up on notes & info to share with the community and cruisers in our wake. In case you missed the memo, just because we completed a circumnavigation doesn’t mean we’re done cruising! More adventures ahead.

Circumnavigation: FAQs from Totem’s circle of the globe

Courtesy flags reaching from Totem’s bow to masthead flutter in the breeze, a colorful strand representing most of the countries we’ve visited while sailing around the world. It’s still hard to believe that last week we completed a circumnavigation. Already hundreds of miles further north, I look out from our cockpit at the comforting familiarity of the mountain range on the south side of Banderas Bay. In many ways, returning here has the feel of a homecoming: this anchorage in La Cruz is where we departed in 2010 for a 19 day passage to French Polynesia.

Last night our family ventured into town, grateful to find little has changed in the cobbled streets and colorful storefronts. A few more restaurants belie growth but fundamentally it is the same. Even our favorite street taco feed, now named “La Silla Roja” (The Red Chair) for the bright plastic seats set in the road next to tables clad in red checkered tablecloth. The tacos were as delicious as we remembered, washed down with ballena of icy Pacifico.

The rush has not worn off and there are complex feelings to process about this milestone. Meanwhile, some questions coming up on repeat. I hope I can answer the most frequent among them here while sharing a few of our own reactions.

Statistically speaking

  • Duration: 3,520 days (9.64 years) from departure on August 21, 2008, to crossing the track on April 7, 2018. But that track was made back on February 4, 2010 … chalking our loop up at 8 years, 2 months, 3 days if you slice it that way…including about a year and a half parked in Australia to work and refill the cruising kitty.
  • Distance: 56,806 miles / 49,363 nautical miles / 91,420 kilometers
  • Days underway: 815
  • Nights at sea: 201
  • Countries/territories: 47
  • Islands: 269
  • “Places”: 559

How old were the kids when you started?

When we sailed away, the kids were four, six, and nine. We start birthday season in the next couple of weeks and they’ll turn 14, 16, and 19.

Kids in 2008, and this past year

What’s your favorite place?

The impossible question that everyone asks! We tend to like where we are; it’s hard to pick a standout above all others. Some places are unforgettable for epic snorkeling or diving, others for cultural interest, another for history or human encounters, another for delicious food. But when we talk about favorite places, a few consistently hit the top five: we love Mexico (safe, friendly, affordable, mmmm tacos), Papua New Guinea (the people, the culture), and African destinations feature prominently (Comoros, so much to plumb; Madagascar, endlessly fascinating and beautiful; South Africa, complex and beguiling).

What did you miss on the first circle that you want to see on the second?

Best about this question is the correct assumption we’re not finished cruising! To a one, our inclinations is to pass on the usual South Pacific hurricane season destinations and head for Micronesia instead. I’d love to go back to Taiwan (where I lived in the 80s and 1990) and hear great things about cruising in Japan. We missed the Med, but it’s the Baltic and North Sea that have an allure. And then, South America! Basically: we missed most of the world the first time around, as that skinning line on our world map attests… there is so much to see.

Approaching the line in Zihuatanejo

What’s the worst maintenance problem?

In a valiant move for a Best Husband Ever award, Jamie takes care of all maintenance and repair on the heads (toilets). It is a stinker of a job. Thank you sweetie, you know how much I love you!

What was the most difficult weather?

The worst was the passage from Australia to Paupa New Guinea; for the last three days, we had sustained winds up to 45 knots and seas at 4 meters (the occasional gusts over 50 and 5m seas thrown in for fun). More about that passage in this post from October 2012. The coast of Colombia is a close second, the challenge of 4-5 meter seas compounded when our steering cable broke and we had to “hand steer” by punching buttons on the autopilot.

Dolphins play at the bow heading north from Zihuatanejo towards La Cruz

Did you have any scary encounters where you didn’t feel safe?

A few. The scariest was when a powerboat lost control in Avalon, Catalina (California), and plowed through a mooring field where we were pinned. There was the time we got separated from Siobhan (then age 8) at the mall in the massive Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. There have been ports where we took the precaution to lock ourselves in at night, but only a few; we avoid places like that. (Some posts on safety here, and on weapons aboard here.)

What’s next?

More cruising! What, this awesome but man-made milestone means we should just stop a fulfilling way of life? I don’t think so.

This summer, Totem will be hauled out in the Sea of Cortez for some spa time and we’ll road trip the west coast and spend a few months in the Seattle area. Niall will head to college (not committed to a school yet, but probably very soon), and we’ll return to Totem in the fall one crew member short.

Then what? We’d like to go back to the South Pacific, and a Pacific lap is tempting (Taiwan! Japan!), but think it’s more likely we’ll spend a couple of years in Mexico and Pacific coast of the Americas. The islands sing a siren song, but proximity to the US helps us best manage needs for family and finances. Our ongoing plans are always contingent on three things:

  1. everyone aboard wants to do this
  2. we are healthy enough to do this
  3. we can string it together financially

It’s always possible that one of those will change, and on very short notice, our plans would as well. It’s just not what we expect anytime soon.

Near term, Jamie and I will be at the Annapolis Boat Show next week (and again in the fall). Sign up for one of our seminars, or if you’ll be around, sing out! We’re offering seminars at Cruisers U and are looking forward to checking out the show.

We hosted a Facebook live event a couple of hours after closing the loop. You don’t need to be a Facebooker to watch the recording.

 

 

Northbound to Mexico: lessons from the country-per-day plan

birds on the bow at sunset

The Pacific side of Panama felt palpably different even before the channel markers switched near the continental divide, green buoys replacing red on Totem’s starboard side. It was partly an earthy smell of the hot wind blowing through the Gaillard cut. A changed quality in the light, maybe, on the far side of sawtooth mountains catching tradewind-blown clouds from the Caribbean. The temperature cooled along with the water, and large swells slowly lifting Totem on the exit from Mirabella confirmed her homecoming to the Pacific.

Jamie and I booked flights from Puerto Vallarta to the Annapolis boat show later in April. PV is about 2,000 nautical miles from the canal, so there’s pressure to make tracks to the north…but only after some fun with the family of Shawnigan and a stockup at the Mercado publico in Panama City. It’s north… but it’s actually very much a westbound path as well, as the picture of our sunset bow view attests!

Edging away from the crepuscular splendor fostered by canal zone smog, a first hop to forgotten islands off the coast helps to optimally time rounding Punta Mala at slack tide (the Spanish being very literal with names, if this was designated ‘bad’ that’s worth respect!). From there ahead to Costa Rica, where weather-window waiting began.

Passage planning begins in earnest at Playa Hermosa, towards the western end of Costa Rica. There are two weather hurdles: Papagayo winds that form over Nicaragua, and “Tehuantepeckers” that blow from the Caribbean over the isthmus to the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Rubbery plans stretched hesitantly out. It drives home three principles for safe and comfortable cruising. First, that having a schedule is generally not good. Second, that you should never be tempted toward preferential forecast interpretation. Last, that it’s always OK to change plans at the last minute if the weather tea leaves aren’t lined up in your favor. OH, there’s a fourth: it’s always worth looking beyond your immediate forecast. Had we considered only what the Papagayos were doing, we may have missed that by holding off a couple of days we’d time well for the Tehuantepec.

Traffic on the Pacific side of the canal at our first-light departure

Expected windows evaporated, plans postponed at the last minute; it’s best for the boat and the crew. And then, finally, our patience is rewarded. Not only is there a window to cross the Papagayo zone, but it appears by the time we reach the Gulf of Tehuantepec there will be a weather window to cross here as well. It feels like finding a four-leaf clover in a field and comes with the trivia fun fact that we’ll spend each day off the coast of a different country during the five days to Mexico.

OpenCPN screenshot of our route from Panama to Mexico

OpenCPN screenshot of our route from Panama to Mexico

Departure day – Costa Rica – March 29

Cabo Santa Elena has a reputation like Punta Mala for washing machine seas. We play slack tide again and anchor in the lee to eat lunch until the timing is right. Did it make a difference in the sea state? We aren’t sure. But we did have very comfortable conditions, relatively flat water and a breeze in the mid-teens. Ironically it had been much windier at our lunch hook in the lee of the point, where the wind was probably funneling and spilling over the ridge line.

Crossing into the Gulf of Santa Elena, the seas built to only about 1.5 meters at the greatest point of fetch, when the coastline fell off to a little over eight miles from our rhumb line course. The islands here are beautiful, and all along this coast are mental marks of bays we hope to revisit at leisure.

Scanning the Murcialagos islands

Jamie scans the Murcialagos islands through the binoculars: this is a place to revisit

Along the way, marine life puts on a show. Twice there are pods of whales; nothing is close enough to identify. Part of me is wistful, but part is grateful. It’s actually terrifying to be too close to whales in the water! Dolphins come to play several times, the magic of their directional shift to join our course always heartwarming. A meter-wide ray jumps behind Totem, and three turtles swim by later in the afternoon.

Passage eating: skillet bannock for breakfast, a lunch of couscous salad with beets, garbanzos, chicken, and eggplant parm for dinner… prepared at anchor to enjoy without effort.

Day 2 – Nicaragua – March 30

We wake up in Nicaragua, Totem’s 47th country/territory and what turned out to be our 1,500th anchorage while cruising! Papagayos are worse at night; this curve of bay in the surf town of Pie del Gigantes was a good place to stop. Winds were in the mid-30s, nothing like the force they can pack but still enough to whip up some nasty seas. Picking a mellow bay to get another night of sleep while the wind blew was definitely the right course for us. Although close enough to shore to watch families on their Semana Santa holiday romp in the surf, we remain aboard and don’t try checking in. Technically we should… our usual rulesy selves are passing on the hassle, still smarting from the 10 hours to check in and out (concurrently) in Costa Rica.

Kids swim from the bow of the boat

The kids want to chalk up a swim in every country: Niall and Siobhan get ready for a dip in Nicaragua

Diurnal winds bring better conditions than expected, and with nice morning breeze Totem makes miles under sail. It fades at midday, we fire up the engine and then 15 minutes later breeze is up in the opposite direction… without a change in course we just pull the jib out on the other side and BAM making 7-8 knots again! Flat water in the bargain. Reminds me of being back in Madagascar, except the difference at night in our northern hemisphere carpet of stars.

Passage eating: a late breakfast of ham/cheese/egg sandwiches, snacking our way through lunch pangs, a hearty bean ragout with sautéed cabbage at sunset in the cockpit.

Day 3 – El Salvador – March 31

Some hitchhikers are especially fun, and today was Bird Day on board. The booby on the spreader was cute until it flung fishy poop on our strataglass. But the pair of terns that snuggled up on the bow in the evening, cooing and grooming and occasionally nipping each other, were nothing short of adorable.

Painfully cute pair of nuzzling terns on Totem's bow

Painfully cute pair of nuzzling terns on Totem’s bow

We have a full moon on this passage, and it’s a particularly stunning strawberry color as it rises from behind low-lying clouds this evening. As a general rule, full moon is a welcome feature as it makes it easier for the on-watch to see the sea state at night. It’s also something we have had comically bad timing with in the past! But the seas are board flat, our nights will mostly be motoring as the wind dies after sunset, and I find myself missing the carpet of stars as most are eclipsed by the bright moon. Yet during my watch in the wee hours of the morning, I can see the southern cross on our port side and the north star to starboard. The unusual occurrence of these pole harbingers never fails to feel special. As if to agree, I hear the huff of dolphins aspirating somewhere just out of my sight.

Passage eating: make-your-own-oatmeal-when-you-rise, team lunch of arepas with sweet potato/black bean hash, and a rich, creamy beef stroganoff in the cockpit for dinner.

Day 4 – Guatemala – April 1

Apparently, it’s Easter. When we started cruising this would have been preceded by a week of eggy crafts and making natural dyes to tint blown-out eggshells; on Easter morning we’d have hidden chocolates in the cabin and hoped they’d all be found before melting in the subtropical heat. This year is lower key, we’d almost have missed the holiday if not for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) that takes over in Central America. The thump of music from beach revelers reaches us as far as 12 miles offshore.

Mairen and a plate full of hot cross buns

Mairen and a plate full of hot cross buns

Our subdued nod to the holiday is a big pan of hot cross buns, complete with shortcrust pastry decoration. Checking social media through our Iridium GO, I learn that Easter is becoming like another Christmas with Santa suits swapped for bunny outfits. This addition to the consumer driven holiday panoply is startling. I’m glad it’s absent from our reality, and reflect on how our relationship with Stuff has been changed by the way we live.

Passage eating: hot cross buns, eggs optional; yogurt and fruit; a Provençal stew (if only we had rabbit).

Day 5- Mexico – April 2

At dawn we’re off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico. If the Pacific felt like home, arriving in Mexico is yet another homecoming: it’s a few skips north up this coast where we will cross Totem’s outbound track to complete circumnavigating. In a twist of fate our landfall is within 24 hours of the precise eight year mark that we pointed Totem away from Mexico to begin our passage for the South Pacific.

Cownose ray winglets disturb Marina Chiapas water at dusk

Cownose stingray winglets disturb Marina Chiapas water at dusk

Puerto Chiapas is the jumping point for the Tehuantepec, and as the forecast has held the window to cross. We have just enough fuel to make it, and it’s tempting, but could have us arriving on fumes; we’d rather have a buffer. The window won’t close if we stop overnight here to check into the country and top up diesel, so by 8am we are tied to the dock at Marina Chiapas. The marina staff are smiling and friendly; the ebullient welcome from the charismatic manager Memo buoys us further.

Arrival celebration: bacon and eggs for breakfast, because bacon; lunch on the run during clearance; chicken on the braai; tequila. Viva Mexico! ).

Rest, then northbound again

Passages have a rhythm. There’s a stride that sets in on the third morning; no longer sleep deprived, accustomed to the body clock shift into multiple sleep cycles. Stopping in Chiapas was the right thing to do, but it resets the rhythm. That the passage across the Tehuantepec is only one night is awkward again, but a mixed-up body clock is not even a blip in the decision to go. The window is open, and what we’re paying closest attention to is… well, look at our PredictWind screenshot below. What do you think?

PredictWind view of Tehuantepec

Meanwhile, we heard from friends on the far side of the Gulf – a family we last saw in Mexico just prior to departing for the South Pacific, and they’re waiting with bubbles. Time to go!

Boobies wrangle for spreader ownership

MY SPREADER.

 

Anatomy of a Panama Canal transit

Roy- Totem's ACP advisor- and Jamie

What’s it like to transit the Panama Canal? How much it costs to go through is the first thing most people want to know, if only out of curiosity; those details are here. What’s the process of a transit through the isthmus like? For those in our wake: a summary of Totem’s our experience, the resources that were helpful to us, and what we learned about how to transit safely.

“Cristobal Signal Station, this is sailing vessel Totem.” After weeks of anticipation and planning, the VHF call to inform the port entry coordinator of Totem’s location marks the start of our canal transit.

Pre-transit planning

This process began with research a few months before. Approach varies depending on whether you do it yourself or hire an agent. Despite a bias to DIY, we chose the latter to have an advocate for getting through in a timely fashion and avoid tramping around Colon (unsafe in the best of times, worse with the rioting this month).

The agent will handle:

  • the canal officialdom runaround
  • organize lines (4 x 125’) and fenders and line handlers if needed (for a fee)
  • cover your $900 “buffer” fee with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)
  • advocate for your desired transit date
  • assist with outbound clearance

Colon has a dismal reputation for personal safety and erupted in riots in March, so it was peace of mind that our agent did the leg work there. He also found us early transit dates when arriving boats were being assigned two to three weeks wait period.

line handler prep for panama canal

Jamie coaches our line handlers before transit. Yes, the Flats is quite a charming anchorage…

Want to DIY? No problem, by all accounts. Good cruiser descriptions for their DIY transit to be found at Gone with the Wynns, White Spot Pirates, and ImpetuousToo.

Waiting to transit

A transit date is only assigned after your official measurement is complete and all canal fees are paid. This interval can take a few days in low season or a few weeks at peak. Waiting in Colon means either paying steep rates at Shelter Bay Marina (owning the monopoly!) or anchoring out where you 1) must not leave the boat unattended for security reasons, and 2) have no place to leave the dinghy, so it’s drop-offs / pickups only.

Motoring up to the first locks on departure day

Motoring up to the first locks on departure day

If your assigned transit date is too long to wait around Colon, there are two options. First, pay to fast track. We were quoted about $3,000 in addition to other canal fees to request an expedited transit from the ACP. Well that was nice to know! Alternatively, do a day sail east to historic Portobelo or go overnight to Guna Yala (San Blas). Getting to either can involve bashing during peak tradewinds; watch conditions.

Go time!

Six humans is the minimum crew during transit: the captain, four line handlers, and an ACP advisor. Mairen and Siobhan were rejected as line handlers (on the unfair basis of their gender, as far as I could tell, but it’s not our call). They’d have done fine, but it was a bonus to have two friends aboard helping fill the role.

Cruising boats do what’s called a handline transit: this means the lines between ship and shore are moved by human handlers. Commercial ships (or fancypants boats measuring 125’ and more) get pulled through the locks by cables attached to locomotives.

Locomotives pull ships in the panama canal

Shoreside locomotive with cables to our Ro-Ro lock buddy, Sunshine Ace

Handline transit vessels have four possible configurations to pass through the locks. When your boat is measured, you can specify top two preferences with the admeasurer. Descriptions to prepare for locking through in different configurations is thoroughly detailed in the Mad About Panama ebook.

Transit begins by meeting your advisor at The Flats, an anchorage 2.5 miles from the first Caribbean-side lock. Totem was assigned a one-day transit, so we anchored overnight as the advisor was due to arrive before sunrise. Andrew and Tristan From Utopia II joined us as linehandlers (and entertainment!). When two other boats anchored nearby, we suspected that our raft partners had arrived. Just before dawn, an ACP vessel maneuvered in to deliver an advisor to each anchored boat.

ACP boat delivers advisor at dawn

And advisor is delivered to Totem at dawn

The canal is roughly 37 miles long, most of which is the waterway of Lake Gatun and canal cuts between the trios of locks at each end. Entering from the Caribbean side, three sequential chambers of the Gatun locks lift vessels up around 90 feet. On the Pacific side, there’s a brief motor across Lake Miraflores between the inland lock (Pedro Miguel) and the last two chambers (in front of the Miraflores visitor center) where boats are lowered back down.

Canal path screenshot on OpenCPN

With our advisor, Roy, on board things began to happen quickly. We were directed to create a raft with Totem in the middle. Roy dryly commented, “perfect, now we have big fenders to protect us.” We like Roy! The boats remained rafted through the first three locks, then separated to cross Lake Gatun, rafting up again to descend the last three locks.

Entering the locks

As the center boat, Totem was responsible for primary propulsion of the raft and Roy was the lead advisor to direct all three boats. It also meant an easier trip for Totem’s line handlers. Once the raft was formed by securing bow, stern, and spring lines, our line-handlers became passengers.

Most cruising boats share the chamber with a commercial vessel. When locking up (towards the higher water in Lake Gatun), commercial boats enter first.  Our “buddy boat” for the first series of locks was the 650’ ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off car carrier), Sunlight Ace.

As the raft drives slowly into the open lock, four ACP handlers – two on each side of the lock walls – throw a small, weighted monkey’s fist with messenger line attached down to the two boats on the outside of the raft. Line handlers on these boats tie the messenger lines to loops on to corresponding bow and stern lines. This does require that the line-handler know how to tie a knot! Our expectation was this was fast and furious, but it happens slowly. This is not the tricky part.

Panama canal line handlers on boat and on shore

It’s an intimidating toss for the weighted line from a shoreside handler

When messenger line and your line are joined, the shoreside line-handlers pull your lines up the lock walls and secure the loop on large bollards (big ship cleats). When boats are secure, the riveted steel plates on the massive lock doors begin to close.

Sending lines back up to shore

Sending lines back up to shore

What happens in the locks?

When the lock doors close and water level begins to change, the line handlers must tension (or loosen) the lines per advisor instructions. It sounds easy, right? But a line handler thinking about capturing the scene on the GoPro they have stuffed in a pocket may not respond when necessary. A cleat that is cluttered by junk on deck will make the line handler’s job unnecessarily difficult. A language barrier between handler and/or skipper and/or and advisor can cause problems from missed or delayed communications. A side-boat advisor distracted by cell phone because primary advisor is in charge is dangerous too.

Panama Canal advisor directing boats

Roy advises all three boats from the center of the raft

Once the change starts, it is critical to keep pace tightening or easing the lines to shore as directed. Something like 55 million gallons flow through in 10 minutes and the water movement is intense. Salt and fresh water don’t like to mix, so when they flood together, lighter fresh water rushes over the salt water create currents on horizontal and vertical planes. If spider-leg lines holding your three-boat raft in place are not properly handled the raft can begin to spin, which is when bad things happen to boat.

intense turbulence within a Panama Canal lock chamber

Handlers manage lines during intense turbulence in the chamber

Dry descriptions don’t convey how heated action can be inside the chamber. Turbulent water can damage boats and humans. When locking “up” to Lake Gatun, lines had to be tightened as the raft floated up to meet the top of each lock, shrinking the distance from boat to bollard. Locking “down” meant loosening lines. If not closely watched, the lines really load up. One of the boats next to us was sloppy with easing the lines when the raft started to shift. The crew realized and scrambled to secure the line that was pulling from them, and twice, nearly caught hand/fingers in the process. So much better to just pay attention!

Exiting the locks

When a massive ship just in front of you spins up the props to move out of the lock, there is a lot of wash. Totem’s engine in forward with moderate RPMs to hold station against four knots of current. All hands must pay close attention to advisor direction to keep the boats centered and pointing straight.

Massive steel lock gates in the canal

Massive steel lock gates in the canal. Does this make it look gentle? It’s not!

Once turbulence subsides, the raft slowly motors forward. If another lock is immediately adjacent (this happens three times), the shoreside handlers walked the raft like they were a trio of dogs on a leash. If there’s not another lock immediately ahead, shoreside handlers will remove lines from bollards and toss them into the water for the boats to pull in.

When dismantling the raft for Lake Gatun and at the exit, the connected boats first motor ahead a safe distance to be clear before separating under the advisor’s direction.

Lake Gatun

By the time we reached Lake Gatun, it felt like the day should be half over – but it was barely 10 o’clock in the morning! Time to hydrate and pass the snacks.

If assigned a two-day transit, you spend the night tied to a large buoy just outside the channel. Lake Gatun is an artificial lake full of tree-stumps and other anchor-eating debris, so it’s mooring only! We initially hoped for this overnight stay, to watch for crocs and listen for howler monkeys. In hindsight the one-day transit was nice to get it done, though long at 11 hours. Thanks to our friend Tammy for this photo of their Gatun mooring!

From here it’s a motorboat ride through history on the big-ship highway to Pedro Miguel locks on the far side. Mad About Panama’s ebook details it all, from how to spot Noriega’s jail to the crane called Titan that was built by Hitler’s Germany and claimed by the US as a war prize…it’s still used to service lock doors.

Sailboat passing OOCL cargo ship in the Panama Canal

Andrew keeping an eye on traffic

Differences in the last locks

Locking down the three chambers reverses a few aspects of locking up – besides the obvious descent. Cruising boats enter first, with the commercial vessel behind. Boats float at the same level as shoreside handlers, so Monkey’s fists are tossed across instead of dropped down, a less intimidating prospect for the weighted line.

throwing monkey fist at canal

Lousy picture – you get the idea!

Current effects were different: again, it was essential to pay close attention to the advisors direction and expect that his instructions may not feel intuitive. Our return to the Pacific (a journey which the canal makes mostly by going south, and a little east!) was a relief, celebrated with the

Takeaways for a safe transit

Notes on our transit, reflections over the last two weeks, have gelled some perspective on our transit: what worked, what could have been done better.

Foremost, all advisors are not created alike. Roy was excellent, and helped us have a problem-free trip. Advisors adjacent to Totem were more attentive to their smartphones than the line handlers. This caused a few exciting moments – all ended well, anyway.

The advisor isn’t the captain—you’re responsible for boat and crew!—but our number one takeaway to transit safely is that it’s essential to work tightly with the advisor. They understand the lock conditions: some instructions may seem odd, like directions to turn the boat to point towards a lock wall, but it’s for a reason. There could be a four knot current deflected by the wall, and their direction is to prevent bad things from happening.

Panama Canal Advisor Roy on board Totem

Our advisor, Roy, was all that and a bag of chips. We scored with this great guy on board!

The advisor is assigned; you don’t have control over that. Here’s what you can control and do to prepare.

  1. Clear decks. The area around bow and stern cleats must be as clear as possible. We moved stern rail mounted outboard to rest on deck near Totem’s mast to free up space near the stern cleats.
  2. You’re either a line handler or you’re not. If you want to take photos or text or adjust your GoPro or message Facebook friends or, or, or, when in the locks, then you are not a line handler.
  3. Fair leads! You know your boat: if the bow line has to pass through the bow pulpit for a clear path to the cleat, then have it run that way at the start. Re-leading in the moment takes time you may not have if currents start spinning the raft.
  4. Stern lines: Jamie felt these took the most load: a strategy to consider is running them to a cockpit winch with the stern cleat as a guide. This gives far better control when easing a loaded line and more muscle to tension when required.
  5. Repeat the instruction given by the advisor. This makes the advisor’s job easier by confirming you heard and are responding to the action called for. It may serve to clarify the advisor’s intentions when issuing rapid instructions.
  6. Mitigating an un-engaged advisor. If the lead advisor is distracted or communication is poor (and even if they’re not), proactively talk through maneuvers before they need to happen. We felt the boats rafted to us struggled a couple of times due to less attentive advisors.
  7. PAY ATTENTION! The lead advisor (who is not necessarily on your boat) may call for rapid engine and or steering changes. One of the boats rafted to us was… less attentive. It created a couple of fire drills and added to our burden to prevent the raft from spinning.
Three boat raft for the Panama Canal

Totem and her fenders I mean lock mates: a nearly matched set of Ovnis.

Resources for planning

  • Start at Noonsite: succinct, solid orientation for the process.
  • Ready for details? They’re all in Mad About Panama’s website and very useful $1.99 ebook. If you read just one guide to prepare, this should be it.
  • Also helpful is The Panama Cruising Guide (Bauhaus) but it’s very expensive if you only want canal info. Invaluable for Guna Yala, however, a good all-around cruising guide for Panama.
  • To appreciate the magnitude of this awesome feat of human labor, read David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas
  • In addition to reading, first-timers can prepare by volunteering to line handle for another cruiser in advance of their own transit: a great way to pay it forward and internalize the process before going in your own boat. Listen on the morning VHF nets (details on Noonsite)

Totem is now northbound from Panama, lingering off Costa Rica for a better window to get across the Papagayos. We’ll cross our circumnavigation track in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, in the next few weeks. If you’ll be in the neighborhood, let us know!

 

 

Exploring Panama’s Guna Yala

sailboat at sunset

Plumes of spray shoot up where waves strike the rocky spires of a reef off the coast of Guna Yala. Totem is bashing west to our next pocket of protection for anchoring, and none of our charts on board match what our eyeballs tell us. “I guess we won’t sail between those islands” considered Jamie while eyeing breakers that stretched across the gap. One chart showed the area as grayed-out UNSURVEYED territory. Two others with some detail suggested it was passable. Welcome to navigating in the eastern Guna Yala! (This post builds on the prior introduction to Guna Yala).

Tucked into a deep bay a few hours later, the kids jumped in for a swim: sediment meant limited visibility, but the sun broke from behind the dry-season cloud cover and turned it a lovely shade of turquoise. Swimming was short lived… was that the smear of a crocodile’s haulout on shore? Impenetrably green hillsides tumbled down to the water’s edge, and in the distance cried a bird, or maybe a monkey; the call was unfamiliar to our ears.

Visitors arrive paddling a large dugout ulu (which also sports a 9.9 hp outboard) from the cane-and-thatch homes nearby. Three generations of a family come aboard: grandmother, parents, and three young children. Together they comprise the majority of the 11-count human population of this community, a handful of structures built a few yards over the water on piles of coral rubble.

Arsesio speaks reasonable English, a legacy of the time he spent in Panama City before choosing to return to traditional Guna life. A few of our Spanish words come in handy too; his wife and mother are more reserved but listen in and smile at appropriate enough times that I think they understand more than they let on. We share snacks stories of our lives while his adorable toddler stuffs crackers into the top of a winch, just like our own kids found them receptacles perfectly suited as string cheese holders some a few years ago. Gifts were lightly bartered: green coconuts and plantains in thanks for batteries and candles. (I’d love to come back to Guna Yala with cases of solar-powered Luci lights to brighten evenings in settlements like this!)

He later asked a favor: since we were headed west, could we take his family (his mother Selina, wife Obaldina, and their three children) on Totem to their larger island community? We pored over the thin data on our charts, and it looked risky. The shallow draft of their dugout makes it effortlessly through a channel between islands and mainland, but it looked questionable for Totem. In good conditions, with water depths we could visually pilot? Maybe. But whitewater blowing across the reef didn’t give us enough to work with for finding a safe path.

Meanwhile, learning about the reason for the request helped us understand how to help. It was time to fill their canoe with coconuts, plantains, and more to sell at the densely populated 10 miles north. Yet when it was loaded down (this included two additional village members, their gear, and an intact but very much not alive deer-like mammal), the sea state was too rough to safely cross the ocean pass between the islands. Now we knew what to do: it was a matter of getting them across this cut into the lee of the next island, not all the way up to their destination; and that we could do. And so, the following morning, all six family members boarded. It wasn’t until they began loading goods—a chain saw, a portable generator, a shotgun, a plastic tub of clothing, two puppies!—that the need became even more apparent. No way could they get across the rough seas in their dugout with all this! So our girls led their girls in coloring pictures below deck while we nibbled fresh bread in the cockpit with adults. It wasn’t a long journey, but an unforgettable one.

We had all the company we needed already with Utopia II.

The eastern range of Guna Yala (also called Kuna Yala, or San Blas) is virtually devoid of other cruising boats: we encountered only one throughout this stretch. Did the relative isolation foster opportunities like meeting the family in Escoses? On another island, we were shown ambergris worth tens of thousands of dollars sitting out on a coral wall to dry. Near Playon Chico, a frequent Guna visitor would ramble for hours some afternoons on everything from his island’s upcoming chicha festival to bandidos stealing from his garden on the mainland. There’s the time our guide for a hike told us with pride about the role of US military in supporting Guna independence; he offered geologic survey markers from the late 1940s as evidence and told us about the armadas from the US to support the Guna during their struggle for recognition – pointing to his ballcap commemorating the 90th anniversary, 1925-2015. And memorably, the afternoon a weathered man beckoned from his doorway calling “cultura! cultura!”- culture, my kryptonite – to show me rows of nuchu, statues with living spirits important to Guna religion, on a corner hutch inside his drafty bungalow.

In the western San Blas, the dynamic shifted significantly. Here were scores of cruising boats. Not all islands follow the Guna’s traditional ways. There were conveniences again: the ability to buy bread and other groceries from small stores (in the east, fewer options and smaller shops; we might buy coconuts or plantains or fish from an individual with extra). Internet access. And here, at last, were the breathtaking islands: white sand beaches, tall coconut palms leaning gently towards turquoise water.

Empty anchorages of the east were traded for bays holding a dozen or more boats at a time. Many were long-term liveaboards, many were “backpacker boats” ferrying travelers (at surprising cost) for their Kuna Yala Experience… or an alternate mode of transportation to Colombia. A few, like us, were cruisers passing through; the western islands are an accessible overnight sail away from the canal region.

These numbers shift local dynamics. Guna in the western islands have built livelihoods around marketing to visiting boats. Dugouts were more likely to come along side marketing handicrafts, offering tours, selling fish and lobster, and occasionally other provisions. And here in the west, thanks in part to that reach, are renowned mola makers: Venancio Restrepo, from Isla Maquina, and “Mola Lisa,” from Rio Sidra.

Venancio and his brother Idelfonso charmed us with their beautiful textiles, patient explanations, and gentle manner

We saw stunning molas in the east, too, but the combination of volume here, the English proficiency of the artists, and their ability to range to the more distant islands favored by cruising boats contribute to their fame.

Shortly before we departed San Blas, a Guna family from Nusatupu island (just below Rio Sidra; near 9 26.8 N / 78 50.20 W ) sailed their ulu over for an early morning visit. They’d seen our mast over the spit of mangrove-covered land that separated us from their home. Igua and his parents were pleasant company; his mother, Floricelda, more outgoing than any other Guna women I met. They visited in our cockpit for a while—drinking coffee, offering molas for sale. From them we learned about the divide is then between Guna who can afford outboards for their canoes range further from the settlement islands to peddle molas; should we return (I hope we return!), I’d make more of an effort to seek out these islands and the artists who don’t have those means. Igua is an albino; there’s a high incidence of this among Guna. The trait is revered, and has a special place in their culture, but given the hot tropical sun… we sent Igua with a bottle of sunscreen. I wish I could say if I’d though tof it first, but it took his request for an application from the one in our cockpit for me to clue in. Maybe some boat in our wake can stop in at Nusatupu, pass along a bottle of sunscreen for Igua, and tell Floricelda her beautiful mola has a good home.

Floricelda allowed photo of her stunning wini, the beadwork decorating women’s arms and legs

Guna Yala holds so many facets of what makes our life interesting packed into one place. Picture-postcard views when the sun emerges (white sand, turquoise water, islands the size of a baseball field sprinkled with palms). Deserted islands where the kids can swim and play. Low tech local community, where people have time to talk. Cultural experiences far from our norm, with lessons to give. And not least, good company: this is the last sailing we’ll do with Utopia II for a while, and so we made the most of it.

Celebrating a boat-kid-birthday in typical low key style, with a beach picnic and games.

Next: practicalities for cruisers planning to sail for Guna Yala / Kuna Yala / San Blas