Facing up to health care

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Keeping up with routine health care needs isn’t a problem when cruising. It’s rare to be in a place where quality care cannot be found, or reached quickly should an emergency arise. In Puerto Rico we played catch up with dentist and dermatology checkups.

Pinterest health careWe arrived in Puerto Rico expecting to hop-skip-jump across the south coast, continuing (we hoped) to blast our way east to the BVIs, then make southbound tracks to Grenada. In the landfall of Puerto Real, Marina Pescadería’s owner/manager, Jose Mendez, welcomed us like old friends. He had already arranged service from an outboard mechanic we asked after via email, and walked us through extensive recommendations to make the most of a short stay: beaches, restaurants, shops, services. Goodbyes with the Akira crew (their kids with our girls, above) was the only down side of our stop. Everything was easy with Jose’s help, and any concern we had about muddling through a few tasks with our lapsed Spanish evaporated.

But even just a few days is enough to work in a dental checkup, and the whole crew was overdue; Jose booked us an appointment with a recommended dentist in nearby Mayaguez. Dental care has been particularly easy to meet while cruising: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, is the latest on our Dentist Around the World tour (Mexico…Australia…Malaysia…Seychelles…St. Martin…Puerto Rico).

All five Totem crew had teeth cleaned by a hygienist and checked by the dentist; two earned bonus sealant treatment, and xrays confirmed Niall’s wisdom teeth have to go…that comes later. Excellent care, nice facility, US board certified dentist…total bill, $300. A bargain, yet at the higher end of what we’ve paid along the way for routine dental care (the exception was Australia, which had prices similar to the US mainland).

Eastbound along Puerto Rico’s south coast, Totem’s engine overheated: the first sign that plans for a speedy trip to the Virgin Islands would be thwarted. Diverting to the port of Ponce, we called Jose for a recommendation. No problem! Despite the fact it was late afternoon on Friday, a couple of hours later Jose’s preferred diesel mechanic, Cesar, was sitting in Totem’s cockpit at 5:30pm sharing his ideas for troubleshooting.

Anticipating a week to deal with what we presumed to be a failing heat exchanger meant enough time to tick another health care item off the list – Jamie and I were due to see a derm, something we try to do annually. A few days later what we hoped to be a routine pass through a highly recommended clinic in Ponce…wasn’t so routine after all.

Jamie’s had a couple of troublesome spots on his face (treated by derms in Malaysia and South Africa); Drs. Villa and Sanchez didn’t like them a bit. My galaxy of freckles and moles turned up a few more suspect spots. Five biopsies, dozens of stitches, and a skin graft later: we are fine, but Jamie had both basal cell and squamous carcinomas on his face (my dysplastic nevi were just that: misbehaving cells, nipped before becoming problematic).

Dr Santaliz sutures Jamie while Dr Villa looks on

Dr Santaliz sutures Jamie while Dr Villa looks on

Most were done in Dr Villa’s clinic, but he felt the carcinoma on Jamie’s nose was best handled by Mohs surgery. With a phone call to his friend in San Juan, we were fit in for 10:00 the following morning—the doctor’s last day in the office before a family vacation (to go sailing in the BVIs, as it happened!).

All told, we had four office appointments; these appointments ran as long as Jamie’s three-hour adventure in the Mohs clinic, which required three passes (and an olive-sized divot) at tissue on his nose before the cell margins were pronounced clean. And then, there was a “house call” when Dr Villa came see us in Salinas (we moved to this sweet little anchorage, more cruiser-friendly and affordable than Ponce) and removed his stitches en plein air…and bring us mangoes from the tree in his garden. When was the last time you heard of a doctor doing house calls?

Healing well, one week after the skin graft

Healing well, one week after the skin graft

All told, the dermatology adventure took a few weeks and cost a freckle under $4,000. It’s a chunk but we can deal (hey, anybody need a quote for a new sail from Jamie?). If you’d like to know more, this post details how we approach medical costs and insurance (cliff notes: catastrophic coverage to avoid financial devastation from a major event, and all routine care paid out of pocket).

The sun exposure we get from cruising clearly doesn’t help our situation here, but everyday exposure now isn’t the primary problem. The reality is that Jamie and I are experiencing this not so much because of cruising, but because of a combination of genetic factors and childhood sun exposure. OUR kids benefit from sunscreen; we spent our childhood summers outside before SPF was an acronym anyone knew. A dermatologist checking me, years ago, said we should give up on plans to take off on a sailboat. Well, no. But we can be careful and thoughtful about protecting ourselves from the sun. I’ve written about sun protection while cruising, and the advice is unchanged.

If there is a single takeaway from our health care adventures in Puerto Rico, it’s this: that quality care is available away from the comfortable range of home. If I can press a second point, it’s that care is generally quite affordable. It may not always be cheap, but along our travels–and a working annual budget that puts us below the poverty line in the USA–it is manageable, and strengthened a sidelong view on the insanity of insurance rates and medical costs in the US.

Meanwhile, our quick pass through Puerto Rico easily became a month. That’s fine. Sure, it’s added some stress as the hurricane season heats up, and a progressively growing series of “waves” off Africa trying to spin up into Caribbean hurricanes. That, too, has slowed progress as we take the prudent steps to remain near hurricane holes instead of pressing forward regardless. But taking care of health was the priority, and along the way it enabled myriad experiences by spending more time in Puerto Rico…

…like enjoying beautiful vistas from the mountains to the sea while driving to the dermatologist outside San Juan.

mountain vista puerto rico

A rental car to get to doctor’s appointments provided easier day tripping to explore the history in Old San Juan…

castillo san juan

Niall offers scale for the fort's walls

Niall offers scale for the fort’s walls

girls at fort wall

…to visit the breathtaking, and imminently approachable, Ponce museum…

Shoes required

Shoes required

…to find out of the way cafés, and indulge in a survey of pressed sandwiches (the best: at El Balcon del Coliseo in Ponce…WOW); recommendations from the doctors for the best roast pork, and a detour through the central ridge to find the perfect place to enjoy it.

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tripleta sandwich

Meanwhile, here we are about a month later, and you have to look up close to know Jamie’s had a hunk taken out of his nose.

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Want to learn more about health care or other hot topics for cruising? In October, I’ll be at the US Sailboat Show in Annapolis—talking formally and informally to anyone with interest and time about their cruising questions! One of my six seminars at Cruisers U is specifically about health care, and will dive into much more detail than this post can cover.

  • October 5-8: staffing the booth at L&L Pardey Books, signing copies of Voyaging With Kids and telling anyone who will listen how inspiring Lin’s books are.
  • October 6: Cruising World Workshop: Prepare to Cast Off (register here)
  • October 9-10: Cruising Women seminar (part of Cruisers U): two full days, including a morning spent aboard a boat.
  • October 11-12: Cruisers U: delivering seminars on a half dozen topics –including health care! Also: on-board communication tools (satellite and radio), passagemaking, common new cruiser errors, dollars & sense (cruise budgeting), and more.
  • Fee for show entry; additional fees/registration for seminars. For more information see the Annapolis Boat Show website. Let me know if I’ll see you there!

VHF radio etiquette

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“Thanks for the wake, @$$%*#!”  Unpleasant to imagine, unpleasant to hear, and rude on all sides. We haven’t heard that since leaving the USA and I don’t miss this aspect of many boaters in close proximity plus a dose of …well, of whatever it is that prompts throwing a wake or respond like that! They need to go cruising.DSC_1185

Summertime radio chatter included restrained and frequent USCG reminders not to use channel 16 for radio checks, to move conversations away from 16 (reserved for distress and hailing only), and more publicly aired inanity. And more from people who didn’t know how to talk over the radio. Reliance on radio fosters good habits cruisers… eventually. Learning and modeling good protocol pays off. It shouldn’t feel silly, unless you’re prone to slip into CB jargon (“10-4” or “good buddy” have no place on VHF).

Lack of decency aside, a lot of perfectly decent people also simply don’t seem to know how to use VHF radio. Poor protocol hampers understanding at best and creates dangerous situations at worst…and between, a lot of the time just results in frustration.

VHF protocol is to repeat the name of the boat you’re calling two or three times, followed by “this is…” and the name of your vessel twice.

After making contact, request to switch from the hailing channel (16) to a working channel such as 68, 69, or 72 for conversation. The other person should reply confirming that channel, or propose another. Without confirmation, you can find yourself scanning channels to find where the other person went, or if they heard you clearly. Once switched to the working channel, be sure the channel is not already in use before reestablishing contact.

In conversation, saying “over” at the end of each transmission hands the conversational baton back to the other boat. This may be unnecessary if the audio is clear and the other person is familiar. Indicate your departure from the conversation by saying “Totem is clear” or “Totem going back to 16”. “Over and out” (or any jargon associated with CB radio or dated cop shows) is like waving a big red noob flag: “out” is for switching off the radio, not standing by to await response…you go over, or you go out, but you don’t do both.

vhf radio radiotelephone

Mint- and functional! classic radio telephone spotted in Walvis Bay, Namibia

These may be obvious but the simple act of confirming an action, like “Totem switching to 72,” is often skipped—leaving the listening boat to wonder if the switch actually happened. Radios can be finicky: transmissions get stepped on, have interference, or just aren’t in range. Did the other boat hear your request to switch to 72? We often use our handheld in the cockpit and it’s awkward to flip back and forth from 16 to 72 to find out.

It doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of good habits, especially if a newer-to-cruising boat can listen to / model from more experienced boats around them. Home waters were another story: our US sojourn was a good reminder not to take VHF protocol and etiquette for granted. A petty spat over the airwaves is unpleasant. Repeated calls on channel 16 by boaters requesting radio checks get old fast. If a boat is speeding or tossing a big wake in a slow or no wake zone, swearing at them out on the radio accomplishes nothing (and is an offense for which you may be fined!). You can always issue a Sécurité call, and be sure to mention the boat by name as a hazard to navigation.

Off Samana on VHF with Akira

AIS and radar from the hurricane season stragglers

Off Samana on VHF with Akira

 

Pinterest radar AIS aboarSunrise tinted the margins of Puerto Rico’s rugged profile with a warm glow. Making landfall on the west coast after a week of bumpy, on-again / off-again passage making from the Bahamas was a relief. Totem and her crew are the stragglers of southbound boats for hurricane season, long since expected to have the anchor set in Grenada…already a month in Puerto Rico, where we didn’t expect to stop at all!

Changing plans, unexpected events, and making the most of where you are: this may just be the definition of cruising. From the Bahamas, our intention was to pass through the various Virgin islands (Spanish, US, British) where we had places to go and people to see. From the BVIs, the focus would shift to a southbound track towards Grenada.

Unfortunately getting east from the Bahamas at this time of year is, in a word, unpleasant! We ran out of patience to wait for a system that would disrupt the prevailing easterlies. Ideally, that would allow us to take “I-65” (make easting to 65 degrees longitude, then drop south).  But there was no reprieve, and bashing into tradewinds isn’t very fun.

Enter Bruce Van Zant’s “Thornless” approach to routing from the Bahamas to the Caribbean. His alternative is to work along the coast of Hispaniola in daily hops, playing katabatic winds. Transit is made at night, when cooling air rushes out from the land and dampens trades to make easting easier. The trades pick up again by 10:00 in the morning: we’d aim to be settled in an anchorage by then, and rest until the evening settles the breeze again. In company with the family on their Manta 42, Akira, after the washing-machine seas south of Great Inauga it was a pleasant reprieve to follow this method along the north coast of the Dominican Republic—making progress at night, and tucking into anchor when the winds piped up during the day.

catamaran anchored Caribbean

Akira anchored off the lush coast of the Dominican Republic

Lush green hills of Haiti and the glorious aromas of tropical flora drifting to Totem were the first signs of a changing landscape. Balm to our parched souls after months in the flat, arid Bahamas, we watched longingly from the water. It wasn’t our plan to clear into the Dominican Republic at all, but remain on our boats during the brief stops and request safe harbor if pressed by officialdom. It stung to skip what is clearly a beautiful, fascinating place. It’s just the wrong time of year: in hurricane zone, during the season. As we watched a succession of early tropical storms marching across the Atlantic it was easy enough to be reminded that we needed to work towards safer water.

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Niall scans the Dominican Republic coast from Totem’s cockpit.

Steady progress across the top of Hispaniola was interrupted when Akira’s engines started giving them trouble. The cause was indefinite—a bad connection, probably, but definitely dirty fuel as well. Totem could well be next to suffer since we topped up diesel from the same source in Great Inagua. The prudent choice was to take shelter, polish fuel, and figure out the root cause of engine troubles. So much for our perfect weather window to cross the notorious Mona passage to Puerto Rico! A squall slammed through during the entry to Samana bay,  a timely reminder of our fragility with engine troubles on a lee shore. Tracking the squall with eyeballs and radar, we avoided it as best we could, and safely anchored a short time later off the town of Santa Barbara.

dolphins from sailboat after the squall

Mairen and Niall, dolphin spotting in Samana bay after the squall rolled by

If there was an MVP prize for gear that afternoon, it went to the radar. I’ve seen the question often enough: do you use radar? Or a variation: with AIS, why is radar really important? Not only is radar an essential tool, but it’s an entirely different one from AIS: here’s why.

Squall tracking

Our situation off the coast of the Dominican Republic is an excellent example of radar use for squall tracking. Even in daylight, where we can see the location and approximate progress of a squall, radar provides valuable insight into a squall’s course and speed, how it expands and contracts, the better to prepare and evade. That squall ended up packing 50 knots, and we wanted to be out of it ASAP for a host of reasons! Tracking squalls so we can try to avoid or minimize our exposure to them is our #1 use of radar. AIS has zero function here.

Using EBL on radar to track a squall

Using EBL on radar to track a squall

This snapshot shows a squall to the southeast of Totem’s position as we sailed up the Atlantic last year. Placing an EBL (electronic bearing line) on the squall’s radar footprint made it easy to track: was approaching or retreating? With the EBL holding a fixed position relative to Totem, this shows we’re moving away on our course to the northwest. Eyeballing the footprint shows how it’s growing (or not), but additional marks can be laid on the squall’s footprint as well.

Per the cruiser version of Murphy’s law, all this action (hello cargo ship at speed!) is happening at two o’clock in the morning: it was probably challenging pick out the squall at that hour with eyeballs alone.

Chart accuracy

Radar can help validate that your charts for remote-country-of-the-moment are reasonably accurate. Charts are fallible (witness the recent tragic, avoidable loss of  the catamaranTanda Malaika on a reef in French Polynesia). We’ve had errors of up to a mile in countries from Mexico to Tonga. Whether you overlay radar on your chartplotter or compare ship-to-shore distances on different screens, this is a great safety aid. Again, AIS has zero role here. I’m trying to think of where we have seen aids to navigation with an AIS signal outside the USA… there were some oil rigs off Brunei… others probably exist but I can’t recall them. Such aids may be present and growing in developed countries, but not most of the places we’ve been cruising. The bamboo stick on a coral head is more likely to suggest the pass in an atoll.

This snapshot of the south coast of Phuket, Thailand, shows radar overlay on OpenCPN helping validate the accuracy of our charts. The Thai coastline lines up well, as do the blips that match with boats and buoys.

Radar testing of Phuket

Radar testing off Phuket

Spotting vessels

Using radar to see other boats, in particular for collision avoidance, the why most people confuse the value add of radar compared to AIS. And yes, both radar and AIS are very helpful tools for identifying and avoiding other boats.

Florida coast: the yacht UQ($@ passes offshore from Totem during an overnight coastal transit.

Florida coast: a radar blip and AIS data show the yacht XYZZY passing offshore from Totem during an overnight coastal transit.

Leave the USA, and how many boats use AIS? The further from the developed world you go, the less it is used, up to the point where it’s a surprise to see a boat that actually is using AIS. AIS is mainly useful for big ship avoidance at sea, and has pretty much nothing do to with avoiding coastal traffic… which, it turns out, is where most of the boats you’re trying not to hit are located. Case in point: most of those blips on the radar screenshot of Thailand are other boats. Only four have an AIS signal.

Sailing through Sri Lanka, Totem skirted coastwise around the south of the island in the dark night of a new moon. One fleet of fishing boats after another dotted the radar. The smaller boats were difficult for our radar to pick up, but careful tuning and a watchful eye usually tipped us of. They DEFINITELY didn’t have AIS, however… the boats were inconsistently lit, if they were lit at all, and had probably never heard of COLREGS.  This situation repeats itself all over the world! Radar was a meaningful help; even more important, though, was eyes on watch all the time to avoid fishing boats and their nets.

Radar vs AIS

For boaters in North America with relatively limited experience, I can see how they may confuse the radar/AIS case. AIS is so common on boats! Charts are accurate now! What, squalls? They have a lot of safety nets, and not a lot of squalls. But spend any time in the tropical belt, and squalls rule: tracking them is key. I think that’s hard to appreciate when you haven’t experience this, just as it’s harder to appreciate trying to navigate an obstacle course of small fishing boats (or FADs, fish aggregating devices) on a moonless night. There is nothing at all interchangeable about radar and AIS. They are different tools: different sources of information to help clarify some navigation situations.

Would you go without?

There was a stretch in Southeast Asia where Totem didn’t have a working radar. A near lightning strike was the likely culprit in failure of the installed unit. Between being remote, and low on funds, it took a couple of years to replace. This was particularly stressful at times as the incidence of lightning is high in the Malaysian waters we subsequently sailed through: a radar to assist with squall tracking was sorely missed!

Around the same time as we finally replaced the radar, a new AIS unit was put in. When we left the USA in 2008, only receivers were available for private boats: we could see commercial ships, but couldn’t send our own signal. Receiving AIS is great, but since installing the transponder we’ve noticed commercial ships alter course a tiny bit, from miles away, to ensure sufficient sea room. It’s tremendous peace of mind.

I’d prefer to never to go without either of these very useful tools on board.

Meanwhile on Totem

So…. our path has meandered more than hoped. It’s been nearly a month in Puerto Rico already! That’s another story.

Sailing route through Antilles on PredictWind

Our Totem’s track from the Bahamas through Puerto Rico

Slow though our progress may be, the unexpected is to be anticipated in the cruising life. Stopping in Samana Bay introduced us to people, flavors, experiences that have added to our world.

The agent Chicho, who made himself invaluable during our whirlwind stay: interpreting to ease our rusty Spanish, greasing the skids for us to go ashore (despite not clearing in officially, something he also facilitated), pointing us to some truly spectacular barbecued chicken (the same that the Trio Travels crew sent us to, oh wow, it was SO good!), helping us with a side fuel purchase (again, not cleared in!), and talking story (he worked on the wreck of a pirate ship just yards from where we anchored and was full of fascinating information). Boats going to Samana: if you anchor out, this is your guy.

Our intrepid, gregarious self-starter agent in Samana. Thanks Traci for the pic!

Our intrepid, gregarious self-starter agent in Samana. Thanks Traci for the pic!

The opportunity to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables, and a pack of kids to help carry it all back to Totem (not to mention, make it more fun! Our girls loved especially loved hanging out with Emma from Akira).

kids shopping in Samana

Our first grocery since the Bahamas: yay fresh produce! Kids a big help to carry it all back to Totem.

Soaking in the bustle of the local market, and slowly remembering how to stumble along in Spanish.

Happy bustle (and sweeeeeet sweet pinapples) of the Santa Barbara market

Sweeeeeet sweet pinapples at the Santa Barbara market

Above it all, the kindness of our fellow humans.

Ferried back to Totem by a helpful panga, coco frio in hand

Ferried back to Totem by a helpful panga, with BBQ takeout for Jamie coco frio in hand

Bahamas lookback II: falling short

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pinterest bahamas water dinghyThree months of cruising the Bahamas left many impressions. After too much time on the mainland, escaping east across the Gulf Stream felt like freedom: a refreshing change in outlook, a new place to sink into and explore – one that several circumnavigators we respect claimed among their favorites. There’s a lot to love about these islands (our favorite features summarized here). That said, it left us wanting. This is at least partly a case of poorly set expectations; we are also burdened (while blessed) by the tremendous depth and breadth of places we’ve experienced over the years. It’s not much, but a few aspects stand out.

The color of the water in the Bahamas is legendary. Astronauts like Chris Hadfield marveled that “from space, the Bahamas is the most beautiful place on Earth.” And when you’re looking down, even the less profound level of a boat deck, the blues are no less surreal than pictures suggest. It was what lay beneath.

Part of that is a question of clarity. It’s nice, but didn’t earn superlative reviews. White sand reflects that brilliant turquoise back at shallow depths, sparkling clarity from the top view, but suggesting more transparent conditions than exist when looking horizontally through the water. Here, it fell short. This picture of the reef in front of Totem on Great Inagua offers an example to illustrate. See those dark spots in front of us? They look like nothing more than black lumps from the boat, and “uninteresting” compared to the vibrant blue, but in fact these were coral heads positively teeming with life.

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Those black lumps were the good bit. The rest was mostly sand (and an entertaining carpet of garden eels wiggling under Totem). But these coral heads provided the most rich and interesting snorkeling we did in those three months (a close second, but tempered Nassau day-trippers: the carpet of soft corals and other plants and critters padding the exterior of the Thunderball grotto).

More disappointing than missed expectations on clarity was the dearth of life underwater. There were epic discrete experiences, like swimming with dolphins: the Atlantic spotteds that came to visit Jamie as he swam to check our anchor set off Bimini, the solo female who didn’t want to stop swimming with us in George Town. After being skunked on manatee sightings in Florida, watching a resident cow lazily drift through the water at Great Harbour Cay marina was magical. There was the tiger shark that wound a lazy path by Totem in Thompsons Bay, Long Island, and offered a blasé fin to the curious who tracked by dinghy to observe it further.

swim with dolphins

These will stick with us. But isolated examples aside, most of what we saw underwater was sand…just not very interesting. South Pacific underwater venturing was far more fruitful; in the Bahamas we saw dead coral, few fish, and a single top-level predator. The reefs probably look fine if you don’t know the difference, instead of a depressing reminder of negative human impact. Is it asking too much? Here in a comparably murky anchorage in Puerto Rico, Niall talks wistfully about missing his daily swim in Bahamian water.

Kids prepare to dive at Great Inagua

Kids prepare to dive at Great Inagua

A temperamental Tohatsu limited our reach and may have impacted our view. The trusty outboard has since been repaired, but during our Bahamas months it lacked the oomph to get our crew on a  plane. Without the reach that speed offers, we didn’t access what may have been more interesting underwater spots.

There’s not a lot of variation along the islands, mostly scrubby, arid, and flat. Once you look up from the water, little captures the imagination. You can always go for a walk, but what’s to draw interest in shore side exploring? The limestone caves were cool. There were ruins – the stone foundations left by early colonial settlers, the more recent reminders hurricane force winds, all with stories to tell. I also have no doubt there are hidden gems. I wish we’d found more: something to unlock more insight into the history, the natural bones, and the fauna so we could better appreciate this place. Hints teased: the giant centipede spotted on a hike, an interesting winging by.

Low drama on shore; high drama in the sky

Low drama on shore; high drama in the sky

The Bahamas is not a cultural destination. It’s not why people go. That makes it unfair as a disappointment, maybe, but exploring what makes a place culturally distinct highlights our cruising life. There IS fascinating history, but it felt buried away, or forgotten, or unimportant. Like the morning we spent driving around Long Island looking for the ruins of an old plantation hinted about on the tourism website. We went back and forth along the stretch of road that passes it and asked half a dozen people where it was… despite being within a small radius of the location and nobody could direct us.

Countries are experienced through taste buds as much as eyes. Bahamian staples were reminiscent of the US south: grits, and everything fried. Not too exciting, but the nature of the soil makes it impossible to grow much. Instead, what’s fresh comes from the sea. The national icon, queen conch, is on every menu. You can’t go to the Bahamas and not have conch! But it’s a fishery in collapse, with no season and poor definitions around legal size (what’s a “well-formed” lip, anyway? And say you knew that lip is supposed to be 15mm, would you know where/how to measure?). We tried it: once from a vendor, once by foraging ourselves. The bones of conch piled high behind shacks serving tourists in Bimini… all taken too soon. Not a market we want to participate in! On the other hand: mahi mahi served up hours after it was swimming, a delectable reminder of sustainable fisheries.

Bone pile, Bimini.

Bone pile featuring juveniles behind a Bimini conch shack

20/20 hindsight on any adventure is unique to the individual. In our case: generally speaking, the places and experiences that rewarded the most were those that took us further off the more traveled path. We’d seek those out, and we’d work harder to meet Bahamians. These go hand in hand: it’s harder to get below surface level where transient visitors traffic through, and tourism thwarts the deeper relationships with transactional encounters.

"Namesake," she called me, as we share a first name - if we ever make it back to Long Island...

“Namesake,” she called me, as we share a first name – if we ever make it back to Long Island…

This post has, frankly, been painful to write. I don’t want to sound like a whiner, complaining about what didn’t measure up in islands that so many love. I chatted this morning with the mom from Sandflea (Sailboat Story), Tambi, who we met in Eleuthera. As she rightfully points out: it’s hard not to love the Bahamas. And we did love those three months, it just… came up short of the superlative reviews. I get it, though. Most cruisers have particularly rose-tinted reflections on their first foray. For many who raved, the Bahamas were their first (or only) cruise from the US. By the same token: we still wax on about our love for the Pacific coast of Mexico, and while it shines on its own merits, the memories are surely magnified through the lens of our early-cruiser-eyes as the place we first stretched…and were rewarded.

I offer this as a counterpoint to my love letter about the chords the Bahamas struck. Whether it’s expectation setting or a reality check, I hope this offers helpful perspective for other hopefuls.

Cruising the Bahamas: beauty at our back door

Girls hiking in the Bahamas

snorkeling coral reef BahamasHard won miles to windward from the cerulean blue of our last Bahamian anchorage, some perspective on our months in the islands is sinking in. I went in with a mixed bag of expectations: friends who have sailed around the world claim it’s among the best cruising to be had (don’t we all love our first major destination?). Other cruisers who don’t have that far-reaching basis for comparison rave about it (was there narrower base of comparison at play?). It put me on guard: were we REALLY going to like it that much? How could islands so close to the USA possibly offer that kind of exceptional experience?

Confession: I spent too much of our time there being jaded and just needed to get over it. So what if the Bahamas didn’t measure up in discrete specifics to more exotic locales? On its own merits, the islands are a spectacular cruising ground, and there is a lot to love. These are the reasons it stood out in our experience.

It’s spectacular. There is almost nothing more to say. We’ve seen a lot of mesmerizing water on our way around the world, and the Bahamas (tie: Bermuda) is at the top of the heap. It’s as though it is lit from within: and it is, in a way, as sunlight reflecting off a white sandy bottom is what lends the vivid blues. Stunning shades of aqua in the winding inner channel of the Exumas are now my benchmark. A gift for cruisers starting out from the US east coast: their first international step can transport them to some of the best! UNDERwater is another story, but we’ll save that for later.

Photos can't do the colors justice, but offer a suggestion

Photos can’t do the colors justice, but offer a suggestion

It’s a DAY trip! Sure, there is a meaningful bit of water to cross and the Gulf Stream deserves all the respect and planning you can give it. But at the end of the day, well… at the end of the day in which you depart Florida, you can be relaxing on the hook in Alice Town or West End, and rightfully feel like you have transported yourself a world away to an island paradise where you can beachcomb for intricate shells, paddle in turquoise water, gawk at mountains of conch shells, maybe even swim with dolphins (all features of our point of arrival, Bimini).

swimming with dolphins

How to describe the feeling of being approached by a playful dolphin?

This proximity also helped when Jamie and I had to fly out. I was gone a week for the Annapolis spring boat show; Jamie hopped around Florida and the Caribbean checking out boat listings with a few of our coaching clients. Even in what felt like relatively remote islands, flights were easy to book on relatively short notice and fares weren’t terrible. What a great way to cruise in a place that’s relatively easy to have visitors! And if you’re sailing back to the US, it’s likely to be with the wind at your back…and an easier task to find a date to cross the Gulf Stream in comfort.

If you came for the sand you’ll be in paradise. If you came for the avocados to make guacamole to go accompany nacho chips that cost $11/bag, then carry on to Puerto Rico!

Sure, you may want to provision up anything you must have; you might not find it and it will cost more when you do. But it’s a corollary of “close to home,” these islands aren’t in the middle of an ocean. They’re regularly supplied by mail boats (or planes). Costs can be eyepopping (especially for our hungry crew…wow the kids were easier to feed when they were little!), but that’s if you’re trying to recreate your Publix shopping cart at a market on Eleuthera. Mitigate expense with advance provisioning or switching your diet to local style: market rates or government subsidy keep many staples affordable. Get out the fishing gear. Shift your habits. Eat on board instead of ashore.

cracked conch

Conch at a pier on Eleuthera: 7 for $10

Ultimately, availability wasn’t as bad as I expected from reports. In George Town, it as possible to get everything from kale to mushrooms and shallots. Markets in Staniel Cay had surprising breadth: asparagus anyone? (thanks I’m sure to the higher-end charters frequenting the area and providing a ready market to supply.)

market produce

Bounty after the mail boat: George Town, Great Exuma

If you need boat parts, it’s a little different. People don’t need diesel mechanics the way they need food. But help is there, and parts are just a DHL shipment away. Many corners of the world are a lot more complicated, and lot slower / more costly, if it’s necessary to source and deliver boat bits. So you may have to wait a bit…there are few places that wouldn’t be lovely to be required to wait around!

We started out by using our existing US T-Mobile plans. T-Mobile’s customer service crowed about the 4G we’d be living in the Bahamas, leveraging the BTC cellular network that’s already in place. Well, there was broad coverage. That’s incredible, really, considering the dispersed islands and thin population. But the service was throttled back to 2G. Fine if you’re just checking email, but really not good enough for what it cost. No problem: swapping our T-Mobile SIM card for a BTC SIM was affordable and easy. $15 for the SIM, and during our stay, 15 gigabytes cost only $35 – much better value than our paused T-Mobile plan and about the cheapest per-GB rate yet.

Despite being entirely off pace with the seasonal flow of the Bahamas, the islands lived up to their reputation as a social hub for cruisers. Our timing meant that we experienced it on a smaller scale (George Town peaks with more than 300 boats; there were maybe a dozen transients when we came in). But we were able to meet up with “internet friends” passing on the way to the states, and make new friends who, like us, had plans to point to the Caribbean for hurricane season.

Sundowners on Tookish

An overdue meetup with the Tookish crew, plus friends

US east coasters in particular seem to make a big deal about shallow Bahamas water limiting access to all but shallow draft boats. Depths require attention, but it is NOT a big deal. Shallower draft boats can anchor closer to the beach. Once in a while they can take a shortcut that we can’t, or skip waiting for higher tide. Repeat: it is not a big deal. We draw 6’; we spent time with a boat drawing 7’, neither of us felt compromised in our anchoring or locked out from cool spots.

underwater snorkeling

Siobhan peeks under Totem’s keel: at times we only had a few inches at low tide

The Bahamas was largely a straightforward place to cruise. Same language, much of the same cultural context, it’s safe, there are oodles of blogs and other resources to help plan a trip. Currency is 1:1 with the US dollar, and US currency is accepted everywhere. It really does not get much easier! But I can appreciate that for cruisers who are reaching beyond the US coast for the first time, it may feel …not easy. And of course, it’s Not America, and with that may creep in some uncertainty. The cure for that is the Waterway Guide. Updated annually, it includes exhaustive detail to relieve any worries a new cruiser (or, newly international cruiser) might have from the clearance process (an overall view and details what to do / where to go at each port of entry) to understanding the unique dynamics of the tide in the Bahamas (they have a great description that helped it make perfect sense to me) – along with all that normal logistical guide stuff of places to go, conch shacks to patronize, and reefs to snorkel. It’s the only book you need.

boats anchored bahamas

Late-season flock anchored off Monument Beach, George Town

The same folks who think you need shoal draft boats to cruise the Bahamas warn about bad charts and currents and tides and dragons. Dunno about the dragons but just like depth, current/tide merely requires attention. It’s not unduly complicated, but may be new for boaters accustomed to channel markers wherever you might need them and aids to navigation for any hazard. Possibly that’s why the Explorer charts have developed an otherwise puzzling cult following. After being at the receiving end a mountain of FUD, we finally conceded to buy a set. They WERE good charts, but along our winding path from Bimini through the Exumas to Great Inagua, Navionics charts (used with the iNavX app) were pretty much spot on (save a few places where we found more depth than they indicated). And speaking of FUD, that’s what Explorer throws at boaters who just want to anchor. In one anchorage after another Explorer reported bad holding where we set the hook very well, thank you. They also advertise a lot of marinas…

We maxed out the three months we were granted on entry to the Bahamas. What we didn’t max out where the opportunities to explore. Always good to leave something wanting? One aspect is certain: the further away from the US we got, the better we liked the Bahamas. Had our earlier plans not relied on pauses and airports while Jamie and I took care of business, I kinda think we might have tipped over into full-fledged the Bahamas cheerleaders. There were just a few things that held us back, though, and that’s the next post.

Stocking Island Exumas Bahamas drone

Drones-eye-view to the north at Stocking Island, Exumas

Safety on board: preventer setup on Totem

downwind offshore ocean sailing sailboat

Boom preventer. Boom brake. Whatever you do, whatever you call it, having a way to prevent or dampen the force of the boom to prevent accidents while sailing deep downwind is important. A lot of cruising IS downwind, so thinking through a smart setup is critical! I’ll never forget learning about a boat some miles ahead of us on the Pacific crossing where a crew sustained life-threatening injuries after a crash gybe. Even a planned, controlled gybe tends to give me the willies due to the tremendous force involved: a violent, unexpected gybe can cause significant damage.

The sliver of a new moon wil set before we pull up Totem’s anchor tonight. Ahead is a challenging passage, one we’re not sure how far we’ll take: hopefully, all the way to Puerto Rico, if all goes well (follow our progress at our tracking page on PredictWind). Breeze expected is all forward of the beam, so there’s no need for a preventer– but recently someone asked about our setup. Jamie wrote it up, I took a few pictures to illustrate.

whale spout sailboat sailing ocean mountains

Whale-watching as we sail away from South Africa – preventer in place

DSC_7708What works for us will not right for every boat, but is a safe, strong, and reliable method on Totem. and I’m sharing here in case it helps others install or improve their own preventer. We like it because:

  • Simple approach
  • Side decks left uncluttered
  • No specialized/dedicated gear purchase necessary
  • Puts loads at points able to withstand them (mast/vang/midpoint of boom not intended for the shock loading involved- outboard end of boom is much better)
  • Quickly/easily released from the cockpit if necessary

Totem’s setup: Component Parts

  • 1 x boom lanyard – Dyneema single braid, with ¼” (6mm) diameter.
  • 2 x preventer lines – polyester double braid, diameter depends on sail area (Totem uses 1/2”). Polyester gives a little stretch, but not too much. Length depends on preventer block location and center or aft cockpit. Lines should be long enough that preventer set on one side can remain in place through a gybe.
  • 2 x Preventer blocks or low friction rings – we have blocks, but low friction rings are a great choice: they are more robust and lower cost.

Concept

A preventer must bear considerable loads; in the worst scenario, shock loads that will cause a weak link to fail. For this reason it’s safer to secure the preventer to the aft end of the boom. A middle boom attachment point is more likely to break the boom in an extreme situation.

End of boom attachment can make setup awkward/hazardous or require fixed preventer lines that will cross the deck and get in the way. This preventer setup splits the preventer line into two sections. One line is the boom lanyard; and the others are the preventer lines (1 on each side of the boat). The lines are out of the way when stowed and easy to deploy.

Boom Lanyard

sailboat boom

The boom lanyard is shown above as the line running below the boom. The aft end is spliced around the boom. The forward end has an eye splice to secure to the boom when not in use, as shown, and to use as an attachment point to the preventer lines. When stowed, it’s important to keep the boom lanyard tight along the boom because a drooping line can catch on something or someone.

Eye splice rope line lanyard

Eye splice at the forward end of the lanyard…and around boom on the aft end

This shows one end of the boom lanyard spliced around the boom and the eye splice in the other end. Boom lanyard length should be set as follows:

  1. Easy to secure to the vang attachment when not in use.
  2. Easily reaches the side deck when the boom is out, so it’s safe tying to the preventer line.
  3. Another use for this line is to secure the boom from swinging back and forth when not sailing.

Preventer Lines

sailboat deck

This view down Totem’s side deck shows one preventer line, stowed and ready for use. Things to note, besides those lovely clear side decks:

  1. One end of the preventer line is secured to the lifeline. The other end leads back to the cockpit and is coiled and ready for use.
  2. Fair leads are important! Note that one side of the preventer line runs outside of the lifelines. The other side runs aft along the deck and is NOT fair in this picture. You’ll see that in a later picture I reran this side to go between shrouds so it doesn’t chafe.
  3. The next picture shows me (Jamie) getting ready to connect the boom lanyard and preventer lines together. Note that I am pulling the boom outward for the picture; normally I would be sitting in an easier and safer position when underway. (Behan: you bet he would, or I’d be unhappy about it!)

sailboat

Secured to the toe rail with a Dyneema loop is the preventer line turning block. Friction is not an issue with the preventer, so consider a low friction ring instead.

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Location matters:

  1. Setting the block too far forward increases preventer line length and is hard to run fair.
  2. Setting the block too far aft makes a bad angle when the boom is all the way out.

Our blocks are set about 2 feet forward of the forward lower shrouds, a position that gives a fair lead and good angle to secure the boom.

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Above is a snapshot of the boom lanyard and preventer line, tied together and ready to use. Do not use a shackle! The knot is much gentler should it hit something or someone. This is especially true when you do gybe (by choice). Simply ease the preventer line to allow the boom to swing over.

andersen winch

The other end of the preventer line, ideally, goes on a self-tailing cockpit winch: ours goes to one of Totem’s spiffy Andersen secondaries. This approach makes a quick release easy if needed. If you don’t have an open winch here, you can cleat the line. Either way, be sure to coil the end of the line, and keep it clear to run freely in case you need to quickly release the preventer.

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Here’s the completed setup, much as it can be from our Bahamian anchorage! Notice how the preventer lead has been moved to run fair between the shrouds.

Boom brakes

For some boats, a brake makes sense. These don’t prevent the boom from crossing over, but dampen the movement. We’re not fans of this on Totem because it would place tripping-hazard lines on the side deck. But for other boats, other layouts, they’re a great option: the setup at our friend’s boat Akira, anchored a few boatlengths away, is a great example of this. Keeping it all on the coachroof means there’s no dangerous deck clutter, and they can handle it right from the cockpit.

green line runs to brake on boom, and clutch in cockpit

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I’m looking forward to having a passage that requires setting up the preventer, not this upwind stuff! But for now, will tackle the upwind days ahead by cooking up a storm, checking and re-checking all stowage, and loading books on the kindle from our hometown library.

Another cutthroat game of DogOpoly with crew from the Manta 42, Akira

Another cutthroat game of DogOpoly with kids from the Manta 42, Akira: having a lot of fun with this crew.

Adults in the cockpit, kids in the cabin, paparazzi mama.

With thanks to Bonnie,  for the question and for the kind donation to our cruising kitty!

Easy bread to feed a hungry crew

monkey bread

A well-fed crew is a happy crew: this is no secret. Food is a love language for many, myself included. Feeding people, seeing their pleasure in something I’ve made, makes me so happy. I dug the minor challenge to create a yummy and totally gluten free dinner from our dwindling provisions for friends last week (who knew quinoa could make a tender chocolate cake?!). In the Chesapeake last fall, it was pull-apart bread (garlic herb deliciousness, dunked in soup) that made several nights with friends extra memorable: at Camp Quigley, soaking up the good vibes from Mary Marie, getting to meet her Frank, and catching up with the R Sea Kat crew… on Totem with friends from Annapolis as the main cabin on Totem filled not just with warm yeasty yummy aromas but with laughter and signing and the strumming of a guitar and ukulele. Food gets inextricably woven with wonderful memories. Another night, helping a boy-child-turning-man make the same recipe, I felt like I got to pass a baton of understanding how good it feels to see people appreciate the floury work of your hands.

Eleanor Q, Totem, and R Sea Cat at Camp Quigley

Eleanor Q, Totem, and R Sea Kat at Camp Quigley

Yesterday I made that pull-apart bread kind of at last minute as a way to fuel our crew up before a trip back to Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island. This natural wonder is one of the deepest known blue holes (sinkholes in the world); when we visited a few days prior, there was a busy class of learners. A lot of expensive gear being used for the first time. We kept to the fringe and hoped to come back for a quieter visit. Help with a ride (neighboring SV Akira had a rental car) made it a lock!

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Cliffs… 30ish feet off the water? High enough to get adrenalin pumping on the way down!

There was going to be swimming, and blue-hole-diving, and cliff jumping, and possibly a longish walk back to town afterwards. Fuel for humans required! The bread packs along well, it’s an easy recipe (OK, maybe it takes a little attention the first time), and how many fantastic yeast breads take less than two hours from start to finish? I started while sipping my morning coffee, and it hot out of the oven before our mid-morning dinghy ride to shore.

Slightly fuzzy screengrab from the video of Niall's jump

Slightly fuzzy screengrab from the video of Niall’s jump

This recipe is often called “Monkey Bread” (why? because you can easily eat it with your hands, I guess, pulling at hunks that peel effortlessly away from the loaf?) and typically prepared as a sweet cinnamon bread– but the same basic recipe and method, just a few ingredient tweaks, makes a killer garlic bread. Unable to choose between sweet and salty, I just made a loaf of each (doubling the recipe below).

I couldn’t resist posting a picture as we departed for our swim/hike/explore:this is for everyone that requested the recipe! When I looked it up to pass along, and realized just how different Real Boat Life can be in a step-by-step retelling of the recipe. Enjoy the “hardships” (not really) of cruising.

Ingredients

Bread
1/4 cup warm water
1 package (2 ¼ tsp) yeast
2 tablespoons softened butter, plus more for pan and bowl
3/4 cup milk, warmed
1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus pinch for yeast 1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
3 1/4 cups flour

Coating
Choose either…

  • Sweet: ½ c butter, ½ c chopped nuts, 2 tsp cinnamon (or whatever! I pounded a couple of teaspons of cardamom seeds in my little mortar yesterday, because I love all things cardamom), ¾ c sugar
  • Savory: ½ c butter, 2 cloves crushed garlic, herbs of choice, ¾ tsp salt

…or do as I did, double the recipe and make a loaf of each of sweet and savory!

Real recipe instructions Boatlife version
1. Proof yeast: in a small bowl, sprinkle yeast over warm water to which a pinch of sugar has been added. Stir; let the yeast soften and dissolve, about 5 minutes. 1. Water in kettle still warm from morning coffee. No fresh milk, will add some milk powder later, so start with a big mixing bowl and use a full cup of warm water now to take make up for that liquid. Stir in a bit of sugar, then sprinkle a spoonful of yeast on the top.

This is done from muscle memory as coffee has not yet hit bloodstream and exact measurements aren’t critical here.

2. In a mixer bowl, combine butter, warm milk, sugar, salt, and egg. Grease Bundt pan and a medium bowl. 2. Skip milk; add veg oil instead of butter because it’s easier and less precious, and nobody can tell in the recipe. Crack the egg in a separate bowl first, because you got the eggs from a roadside island stand and it’s not 100% clear that it’s fresh and unfertilized.

Stir mixture by hand, because a mixer is a waste of space on board. Don’t bother to grease pan, and absolutely skip the step of greasing another bowl! The dough will have plenty of melted butter or oil on it later and we don’t need more dirty dishes to expend fresh water on.

3. When the yeast is foamy, add it to mixer bowl; mix well with dough hook, then slowly add flour. Knead on medium-low 1 minute. Place in the greased bowl; cover with plastic. Set dough in warm place and let rest 20 minutes. 3. Ingestion of coffee times nicely with yeast proofing. Over the top of the yeast, add about 2 cups of flour, salt, and about 3 tablespoons of powdered milk. If making sweet (instead of savory) bread, add ¼ cup of sugar too.

Stir to make a thick batter, then gradually knead in additional flour until dough is ready . It MIGHT be the 3 ¼ cups specified, but different flours and different climates mean variable moisture-absorption qualities; you have to do this bit a little by feel. Sorry/Notsorry. When dough is soft, a tiny bit sticky, and springs softly back from a poke- it’s ready.

No sane (power/water conscious) cruiser would dirty a second bowl, so clean dough bits off the sides, glug in a few tablespoons of veg oil, roll the dough ball to coat, and set it aside to rise… under a TEA TOWEL, because hello, we are not into single-use plastic! Turtles and whales and the future of the planet and all.

4. Make coating: Melt butter and put it in a bowl. In another bowl, mix brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts; sprinkle 2 tablespoons of nut mixture in Bundt pan. 4. Melt butter. It really is better with butter, but in a pinch (ran out of the last canned butter from Tahiti? Not lucky enough to have subsidized Kerrygold Irish creamy buttery goodness in the Bahamas?) Vegetable oil is fine. Making sweet bread? Put ingredients in a separate bowl. I never include nuts, because the kids object with interference from the sugar/spice mix, and we often don’t have brown sugar—just white. Whatever. I never measure this, either, just keep making a sugar/spice ratio that seems right. Making savory bread? Stir garlic, salt, and herbs into melted butter, no need for a second bowl.
5. Cut dough into 1/2-inch pieces. Roll into balls. Dip balls in butter, then roll in nut mixture; place in prepared Bundt pan. 5. CUT? What a waste of time and dishes! Just pinch off a golf ball sized glob. For sweet bread, dunk it in the butter (or oil), roll that slippery lump in the flavor bomb sugar/spice mix and toss in your pan. Savory bread is easier still with the all-in-one-bowl combo!

Perfection here is highly overrated; irregular globs offer more places to grab seasoning. Did you really think this was carefully braided or trimmed? Ha!!! This is dead easy and creates a beautiful, delicious results.

I like our trusty bread tins, but break out the bundt if we’re feeling fancy.

6. Cover with plastic wrap; let rise about 1 hour or until doubled in size. 6. Again, not with the plastic. Dish towels are your friend. If you’ve been motoring, the engine compartment is a great place to set the bowl. If it’s sunny out, a warm spot in the cockpit well works too.
7. Bake 30 to 35 minutes in oven preheated to 350 degrees. Let cool 15 minutes in pan when done. 7. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! AS IF A BOAT OVEN COULD HIT AN EXACT TEMP! Crank it up, set pan on a rack and hope for the best. If your oven is uneven (what, a boat oven uneven?!) rotate partway through as needed. Don’t worry about time so much, I mean, we’re not even sure what temp this is hitting! Just watch it.
8. Turn bread out of pan; cool 20 minutes on rack or plate. 8. You think I can keep anyone on board out of this when the boat is permeated with the tantalizing aroma of warm fresh bread? It doesn’t matter if you go sweet or savory, it’s irresistible. I can usually get them to wait till it’s been turned out onto a plate, and maybe a little longer if we have guests, but that’s it.

walkingpinterest monkey bread

Beautiful everyday Bahamas

sailboat in clear blue water

pinterest beautiful bahamasTotem floats in water so crystalline she almost looks suspended in air; her shadow paints a dark splotch on the sand below. One anchorage after another, the incredible water of the Bahamas is the stuff of magazine covers that were surely photoshopped (maybe not, after all!); so beautiful it defies belief.

High clouds chasing the horizon serve as reminders for the march forward and the factors out of our control. The goal to reach Grenada in July feels remote, as the easterlies–which should be backing off–have sent up one day after another of 15+ knots coming out of the exact direction in which we’d like to go. Day-hopping puts a few miles away, but the magic feeling of flying along under sail is elusive.

Still running counter-current to the flow of boats, and that’s OK. The short term routing plan changes with every shift in the weather as we look at our options and work out how to go the “wrong” way most comfortably, while squeezing in as many of the spectacular anchorages of the Bahamas as possible along the way. Maybe eventually these turquoise blues fade into the everyday sameness, but that’s hard to imagine.

There is no hardship in the slow pace, and days of wonder slip by as we incrementally progress. Headed in our direction are boats we’ve “known” for years without meeting in person, and it’s been a joy to intersect. They bring reminders of the mellower pace of a convivial cruising life we’ve not had for a while, the better side of cruising, and many things to be thankful for!

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To days on the beach, sand between our toes, taking the time to talk story, enjoy wildlife, and just hang out.

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To nights with just enough rum – or maybe a little bit too much! – and the fuzzy pictures for remembering them. And these kids! How lucky do we feel to have another great bunch around, even it it’s just briefly?

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To the discovery that people who we’d only known remotely were, if possible, even more wonderful in person, and who indulged my Pavlovian response to the word “hug” from people I care about.

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To finding new friends headed down a similar path, and the anticipation of shared anchorages ahead.

beach days

Old dogs are learning new tricks on slower days, and having fun playing with the tools, although there’s a looooooong way down that road! Last December, we picked up a deeply discounted DJI Phantom 3 Pro during the frenzy of holiday sales. It proceeded to spend most of the following months languishing in the original box as we scared ourselves with stories of newbie drone-flying disasters. We finally got over it.

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A “practice drone” (read: crashable) from our friends Scott & Sara made for great raining wheels, and the Phantom is FINALLY getting put to active use. The images it provides– from Totem floating in the Stocking Island monument anchorage at the top, to the flyover our anchorage at Conception Island below– capture the feeling of these places for our permanent digital memory in a vibrant new way. Now we’re on the lookout for the next trainee to pass the practice drone to; if that’s you, raise your hand!

For bang-for-the-buck photography fun, the winner is the dome we got for our GoPro (make sure you get a cover: they scratch very easily!). For around fifty bucks, the half above / half underwater shots are just tremendously cool, and it’s fun to keep trying to get the “perfect” shot of Totem in the glorious Bahamian water. We’ve gotten a few winners but none to beat the one with a nurse shark just hanging out down below. They are slow, docile creatures but this one practically posed for Jamie!

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Despite appearances, things haven’t been perfect, and it’s more than the easterlies. I’ll regale anyone who wants at a later time about the problems with our new battery bank, with the aft head pump mechanism that broke (again), with the portable generator that’s wheezing, with the shoddily installed headliner that’s dropping, with the mysterious spiny things that got into Ruby and Siobhan’s feet in the lagoon, with… you get the idea.

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Sharing the less glowing realities of cruising is fine. Great, even, because I don’t want to be unrealistic. Today I’m choosing to revel in the highs of the last stretch instead of the lows. And yes, in a none-too-subtle nod to how we assume our lives often appear from the outside: there were actually UMBRELLA DRINKS served recently… on a sweet catamaran (it’s for sale!), with an even sweeter family, nibbling on Cuban guava paste on imported cheese. Because more often than not this cruising life is just that honeyed.

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Introducing Totem merchandise

jamie shirt front
A little while back, two things happened nearly simultaneously. Friends and readers noticed that our friend Brian wore a Totem t-shirt in the opening sequence of videos in his popular YouTube channel, SV Delos. Concurrently, I got an email from Aurelia at 3 Tees, an eco-conscious screen printing company, reaching out to ask if we’d be interested in printing up gear. Problem presented and solved, in one fell swoop! I love that Aurelia cruises in New England with her family: she GETS us, has been a big help with keeping the process simple (me: whaaa? designing stuff? printing? shipping?) and she appreciates how important we felt this gear be produced as sustainably as possible.

Thanks to readers who nudged, and Aurelia who reached out, we’re excited to introduce Totem merchandise.

Starting out with tees, a cap, and the perfect boat bag, all gear has had a solid test drive on Totem. The organic cotton is yummy soft. The durable hemp tote is just the right size for shore excursions and market runs. The comfortable, adjustable cap is Jamie’s go-to. Feel good about it: products are all organic, and use a more earth friendly water based print process. (Sizing note: womens run about one size small, to our fit, but mens/unisex are spot on.)
L-R: with Tambi from Sailboat Story; entering an anchorage; Brian in the Delos intro

The shirts look a little different than Brian’s– that was a VERY limited edition printed with “Indian Ocean 2015.” (I think we had 10 of them made at a shop in Phuket, basically just enough for our crew plus a couple of guests we were expecting!) These have Totem’s logotype and unique orca design on the front. Inspired by Haida artwork, the orca was designed for us by a former cruising kid back before we left Bainbridge Island (look for a surprise in the artwork…I’m not telling). On the back of the shirts: a map with the track we have traveled around the world, and the shoutout to LIVE ADVENTUROUSLY – because doing that, with our family, is exactly what this life is all about!

Map of Totem track around the world

totem hemp bag

Connect to the store through the image below or by visiting totem.my3tees.com. More about products on our new Merchandise page, too.

enter store

niall shirt back

Questions? Get in touch with us, or the crew at 3 Tees !

Archetypical Bahamas, sort of

sailboat tropical sea cruising the bahamasCruising boats flow back to the US for hurricane season this time of year. Our path is counter-current thanks to our seasonally late departure from Florida and slow pace through the Bahamas. It’s less than 300 miles to Florida from where Totem lies at anchor near George Town; more than 1,100 nm of sailing stand between us and our hurricane season destination of Grenada. Compounding our situation: it is against prevailing conditions (easterly breezes) instead of with them. Yes, it really is time to get a move on!

Being off-sync means missing out on some of the expected (and anticipated) experiences of these beautiful islands. I have a long list of “must see” spots, favorites from respected friends seeking to share their love of the Bahamas. We’ll miss most of those spots. I don’t know how to justify our acceptance of this without sounding jaded, but we aren’t too fussed at the prospect of missing many of lauded Bahamas cruiser experiences. We’ll do we do best: make the most of where we find ourselves.

Meanwhile, Totem crew is hardly missing out on the rituals of Bahamian cruising life with various rituals and shenanigans to indulge in though a handful of stops in the Exumas–near Staniel Cay, and at our current anchorage near George Town.

At Big Majors Spot, sundowners were hoisted each evening on “Pirate Beach” (there’s a sign and everything) at 5 sharp.

Jamie brings in our Meori trug: nibbles on one half, beverages in the other side's nested compartment.

Jamie brings in our Meori trug: nibbles on one half, beverages in the other side’s nested compartment.

3- beach gathering

Sailboat 50 50 underwater photo Bahamas clear blue water

Boston whaler, Float toy, and red wine: what could possibly go wrong?

6- Pirate beach view 3b- float toy 3c- what could possibly go wrong

The same setting held a handful of health-conscious cruisers gathering to exercise in the morning.

5- vessel relics hang over the potluck buffet

The gentle workout is led by former nurse and unfailingly upbeat Laurie from MV Forever Young, who lends her considerable positive energy to make fun for all: she organizes potlucks periodically too, typically to share from the bounty of mahi she and her husband catch.

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

Game time on the beach: whiling away an afternoon in the shade playing Mexican Train dominoes with new and familiar cruisers.

7b Mexican train dominoes beach

Beautiful view, cool drink, good conversation, and a fun game—OK!

A few minutes dinghy ride away are the pigs. THOSE pigs, the famous Bahamian swimming pigs, which now crop up on Cays all over the islands but reputedly originated here. They’re cute—I guess? Juvenile piglets are charming, but the bigger pigs—and they get BIG—have a reputation for literally biting the hand that feeds them. I think I know more people who were injured by the pigs than not! We had to check them out but with some apprehension.

pig girls beach bahamas

Mairen and Siobhan’s body language express how we all felt

swimming pig bahamas

This large sow (300 pounds?) did an effortless lap around the dinghy hoping for a handout. Pork belly!

The anchorage would fill and drain cyclically with weather forecasts, as boats took advantage of good conditions to get across the Gulf Stream. Silver lining: as boats intersect heading in the opposite direction, we’ve been able to have some memorable meetings. Many moons of following Allison and Bo from Sailing B+A, messages traded, and they were even more fun in person than I ever imagined.

Love meetups with people we've 'known' online!

The dynamic and engaging crew of Selah: love meetups with people we’ve ‘known’ online!

Snorkeling with them and the awesome Ruby Rose crew, Nick & Terysa, to Thunderball grotto and taking advantage of Bo’s skill for the “us-ie” to get a group shot:

12 Us-ie with Selah and Ruby Rose

Biggest treat for the kids: TEENS, as we converged with multiple kid boats in their age range. A real treat and one that buoyed their spirits.

dinghy sailboat thunderclouds

Speeding their way to hang out with other teens on Allegro

Tracks that converged, intersected, and moved on in different directions refreshed an aphorism of the cruising life. Goodbyes happen all too often. It can be especially hard on the kids, who have fewer opportunities to hang out with peers.

beach sunset

Teen conversation circle on the beach

The flip side: these encounters grow a circle of amazing people in our lives. Goodbyes aren’t forever, and the other reminder is that in a round world there are ample opportunities to meet again. Next to Totem: SV Infini, who we last shared an anchorage with in Thailand more than three years ago!

kids dinghy exumas bahamas

Land your dinghy by the kiln-looking rock, then look for cairns to find the path

I do wish we could have stopped in more of the “amazing—you’ll love it!” spots along the Exumas. We made a few and tips from friends and readers here lead us to great spots, like the cave north of Little Farmer (thanks Jessie!).

cave swimming stalactites swimming

20 sweaty uphill minutes later, Mairen cools off in a stalactite hung cavern

But the out-island experiences we hope to find ahead draw me even more! We’re stocking up in George Town, with an eye on winding through out islands on our way to the BVIs. This is THE scene for cruisers in the Bahamas, with over 300 boats during peak season a couple of months ago. Organized activities cover every day and night of the week, from “beach church” to water aerobics and poker / hold-em nights. I’m pretty sure there’s a coconut painting class. The small-scale taste of this near Staniel Cay was a lot of fun–the bigger cast, not quite our bag. A blast for folks who make this their home-away-from-home but the quieter, more remote islands ahead are what I’m excited about. That said, WOW is George Town convenient for getting things done! We filled a propane tank, topped up some diesel, and chose from a grocery store spread that included such Bahamas-luxury-items as asparagus, leeks, shallots, and mushrooms… and the best price on lettuce I’ve seen since we arrived in the Bahamas. I think there are 11 heads of romaine in our fridge right now!

With luck we’ll have weather to go offshore from Mayaguana and make easting; the route is as certain as the forecast two weeks out! Along the way, enjoying wherever Totem’s anchor drops.

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