Happy boat kids, happy boat

0 kids in the berrysCruising is great for families! Cruising grows healthy kids! Cruising kids are exceptionally well socialized! Cruising can provide kids a broad world view! These are true, but oversimplifications. For all the great benefits to be derived from this lifestyle, it won’t work for a family if the kids aren’t happy, and you can’t take happy kids for granted. Starting young, it’s less complicated; older kids who have to separate more meaningfully from routines and friends in particular are more challenging.

We started in a magic window of ages when our kids (newly turned 4, 6 and 9) mostly wanted to hang out with mom and dad. Friends were important, but our nuclear family was most important. Every child is unique and every family will experience this differently, but I believe it to be generally true and a circumstance that’s fostered and maintained close relationships in our family.

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As kids grow older, it’s progressively important that they have other kids to hang out with. Nomadic kids have a lower bar for friends to enter that playgroup circle: they quickly unlearned the false importance of age, gender, interests, or other artificial boundary lines.

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Niall’s happy to go off with parents and a young boy as buddies for a dinghy adventure

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Niall plays airplane with Mathilda while sisterhood happens with boat kids in a range of ages

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It’s not uncool to play with a three year old.

That next best friend isn’t an anchorage away.  Occasionally, yes, but it takes planning more than serendipity or you’ll have lonely kid(s). This costs a big element of control for your route planning: not easy, especially for families planning a shorter sabbatical cruise with a vision for where they want to go.

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Four kid boats, middle of the Indian Ocean…not by serendipity, but by planning.

If an important driver for plans needs to be finding and connecting and hanging out with the other boat families…HOW do you do this?
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Every region has a hub and a season where boats gather: get yourself there, and you’ll connect with families. Those families may become your buddy boats, or the boats that connect you with your kids’ next best cruising kid friend. Marathon / Boot Key Harbor, Florida, collect cruising families as boats stage to head to the Bahamas for the winter; as the season picks up, it’s George Town, Bahamas where you’ll find them. Prickly Bay, Grenada, gets the biggest kid boat call during hurricane season and St Martin / Sint Maarten seems to be a crossroads in general.

Every other boat has a blog/Instagram/YT channel/Facebook page. Dial into the kid boat community online, and use that as a way to find, track, and connect with other families. This is one of the reasons SailingTotem has an active family blogroll page to browse.

Another good resource is the Kids4Sail group: there’s an admin post around the first of the month with regional check-ins to help families find each other.

The anchorage mapping tool we use for Totem, Farkwar, has a “fleet” for kid boats. At one URL (and a bit of clicking/dragging) I can see which boats in the fleet are near us—and follow boats in our region that we hope to catch up with (like the three teens on Allegro!).

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Each of those waypoints is a boat with kids: several with teens, even!

Don’t just follow families, reach out! As a parent of teens on board I LOVE IT when another family with teens reaches out to see if we can connect when they see we may be in the same region. We help each other out with introductions to each other, since plenty of families aren’t as active in social media.

West coast cruisers have it much easier: cruising boats flow in a linear path along the coastline. In the South Pacific, they migrate along a seasonal route, the so-called Coconut Milk Run, westward with a dip down to New Zealand or Australia during the southern hemisphere cyclone season. Boats arriving in French Polynesia from Mexico will have known each other for months already; new friends enter with the Caribbean fleet sailing down from Panama.

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Shoes, still overrated.

The myriad of routing options from boats departing the US east coast for the Caribbean complicates things; it’s less likely to happen organically, especially for tween/teens. I’m told the Mediterranean is similar, where again there are a wealth of options for routing instead of a linear progression followed by most cruisers. And some regions, well, they’re simply off the beaten path: South America. The Indian Ocean. We loved our year in remote Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia, but it was many moons without another family boat and were REALLY READY for socializing by the time we reached more trafficked cruising grounds. Being around other kid boats is a choice that requires engagement.

On Totem we’re lucky to have a built in tribe. Our kids are tight, and their reliance on each other has surely strengthened this bond.

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After a presentation in Miami last month, Niall responded to a question from the audience about the social side cruising as a teen. He has perspective on the pros and cons, but summarized it by saying “my sisters are my best friends.” I might have teared up a little, but it’s true.

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Wonderful as it is that they are so tight, they also need OTHER kids. Staying in touch with cruising friends through email and texting is important: they routinely use Google Hangouts to chat with friends across several continents, maintaining long term relationships. They’re important, but not a replacement for in-person interactions.

With teens aboard, the happiness calculus gets more complicated. FOMO goes to a whole new level for kids that rely on phone/internet to feel connected. There’s a whole chapter in Voyaging With Kids dedicated to the unique needs and perspective of teens.

The teen bonfire, carefully spaced away from their parents

The teen bonfire, carefully spaced away from their parents: Maldives 

Personal space is key (Siobhan and Mairen have already worked out who gets Niall’s cabin when he leaves for college). For families looking at moving aboard, it’s not just the physical space but how they personalize it to make it theirs. As teens build and connect with their growing identities as young adults, we support them as parents by giving them a voice in planning. Family planning is a round table where everyone’s goals and desires are taken into account. Their desires matter, whether it’s plans for the day or the season.

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Niall’s desire to complete the circumnavigation before college changed our plans significantly, and that’s just fine. On the beach in Eleuthera this week

We’ve had a long stretch with few boat kids in their age range (getting within a three year spread would be great). There have been intersections that provided critical injections of camaraderie, but we’re all feeling it. Leaving Florida so late in the season put us out of sync with the migratory fleet. It’s pulling us to shift our summer plans, and look at hustling south to Grenada sooner rather than later. It’s partly the promise of the a gathered fleet during hurricane season, but mostly because another kid boat—friends we’ve crossed an ocean with—are sailing there soon. Hurricane season worries factors in, too; we have no insurance coverage during named storms, and Grenada is relatively safe from historical storm tracks. Parts of our plans more fixed than flexible (Niall is keen to cross our circumnavigation track in Pacific Mexico before college next year), but this is a shift we can make.

It throws our calendar up in the air again, but that’s a kind of status quo for us lately. This much we know: as great as our kids are at flying together as a solo tribe, we’re looking forward to connecting them with kids closer to their age again soon.

Siobhan watches sunset in Thailand

Siobhan watches sunset in Thailand

Mairen on the windward side of Eleuthera this week

Mairen on the windward side of Eleuthera this week

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Precious provisions: planning for scarcity and economy

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_DSC5309“I miss salads already!” Mind you, we’ve just finished a delicious salad for lunch thanks to lettuce gifted from the crew of Mahi as they cleaned the fridge out before flying back to the US for a visit. But Niall’s reaction reflects that we’re unlikely to have lettuce again for a while. What we brought from Florida is long gone, and nothing in the small refrigerator case in Bullock Harbor was going to fill the gap. “Milk, lettuce, and bacon… I’m going to miss them.” Salad aside, today was the day I cracked into powdered milk as the last of four gallons we brought from Fort Lauderdale consumed.

We don’t provision as deeply as we used to. People everywhere have to eat, and you can almost always meet your needs wherever you are in the great wide cruising world–it just may not look like the grocery shelves at home. There are a few scenarios where it really makes sense to provision deeply:

  1. Weeks of passage making (or, remote destinations without supplies)
  2. High costs in the cruising destination ahead
  3. Low selection in the shops ahead

I’ve skewed to relying more on what we find locally, using pantry locker space for specialty items or things we don’t dare run out of (coffee!). Adapting your diet is part of the fun, if not occasionally an adventure! But in the Bahamas, we’d have both #2 and #3 on the list: fewer shops (and not as much on the shelves) coupled with higher costs. For the first time since leaving South Africa last year, it was time for major provisioning.

Preparation began weeks before we left, stocking up on household products like tissues, paper towels, and kitchen sponges, plus staples we’ll go through like coffee and tortillas. Grateful for friends with Costco memberships, thank you Patty!

When deep provisioning like this, I turn to old-school tricks for storing food without refrigeration: we have a shoebox-sized freezer, and the usual top-loading boat fridge that only holds so much. I started by canning a dozen pint jars of chicken for my omnivore family (see my canning how-to here). New friend Jim invited me on his weekly venture to a massive swap-meet-style open market early one morning in Fort Lauderdale.

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photo credit, and gratitude, to Jim Beran. Wow, it really was chilly enough for a foulie jacket!

4 canned red bell peppersBargains abounded for produce on my list like limes, potatoes, cabbage, and red bell peppers ($3/each at the store, $0.50 at the swapshop!). The peppers won’t keep but canned easily. Sweet corn relish is another easy-to-jar vegetable that brightens up sandwiches and salads. Jim later gifted us with papaya from his garden; that’s now jars of chutney, and all this goodness in in the pantry instead of the refrigerator, waiting for when we need it.

Three weeks later, the green tomatoes I bought in a Fort Lauderdale open market are still in stages of ripening. Limes, lemons, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots are stashed for long term storage. I had to refresh my knowledge on storage techniques, and read Carolyn Shearlock’s (of The Boat Galley) new book, Storing Food Without Refrigeration just in time. Which fruit has to be far from the potatoes? Which vegetables can be in close proximity? It’s all in this comprehensive reference of techniques to extend your pantry on board. Our fridge is full but the tips within help me make optimal use of our storage.

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Canning inspiration at the Jacksonville farmer’s market

Stocking up meant cleaning out and inventorying the contents of lockers. I’m a little embarrassed at the “finds” which emerged, but they’re a sweet little travelogue. A package of Knödel mix—a German potato dumpling, purchased in Namibia—had fallen behind boxes of pasta and carried up the Atlantic. Niall made a PBJ sandwich with preserves from South Africa and a jar of peanut butter that—reading the label—I’m pretty sure we bought in Maldives. Yes, that was about two years ago. Yes, it’s fine! The lockers are now packed up again, with a list of the contents taped to the inside for us to strike off as they’re consumed.

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Arriving in Bahama’s Berry islands was sweet. I’ve traded email with Carla (SV Mahi) for a few years and looked forward to meeting her and her family in person in Great Harbour Cay. With help from another cruiser (thank you Jay!) we were trundled into vehicles and got the full tour of the island.

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Part of our introduction included a pass by the grocery stores, which validated everything we prepared for. The first market in Bullock Harbor charged about 4x the cost per roll of TP. Milk? The UHT boxes on the shelf added up to $15 per gallon. OUCH. This, Niall, is why I’ll be mixing up powdered milk we bought in Florida for your beloved Grape-Nuts cereal. Below is about half of the area of the grocery store : a pallet of flour, cases of bottled water, a couple of chest freezers, and the refrigerator section.

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…and this is the other side, with dry goods. Some items are subsidized and relatively affordable: butter, cheese, and grits. Hello, cheese grits!

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Photo: Brittany from SV Gromit, @afamilyatsea

There will still be favorites from home you simply can’t buy, another reason to provision: specialties and treats. For the Mahi crew’s little boy, Ethan, that treat is chocolate flavored rice cakes…so we brought him some from Florida. His reaction was priceless!

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The Mahi crew had recently stopped in the big town of Nassau to provision, where as Carla related, a grocery cart that might have run $150 at home was over $300 at the register. But proximity to the US and frequent flights meant the selection is similar to home, and thus the lettuce. “I miss salads,” said Niall. “And I’ll miss milk, and bacon.” Don’t worry…we have enough bacon for a few months.

Ending with a triptych of photos from Carla: because life is all about the people who fill it!

Carlas triptych

Provisioning posts are tagged: read more here.

Goodbye USA: extracting to the Bahamas

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Totem has left the building USA, and all is right with our world. We stayed months longer than planned stateside. It honed my appreciaPinterest boat buildings ocean floridation for how the sea has changed us. The happy family, photographed above on North Bimini’s beach, is glad to be back!

Final weeks in Florida were a little frantic, but Fort Lauderdale was a great place to stage for departure. It’s home to a commercial stretch literally named Marine Mile, and I’m pretty sure any boat-related product or service you could want is available there. We had great service from JT Halden’s watermaker shop, picked up quality media at Bluewater Books & Charts, ordered obscure Yanmar parts from Compete Yacht Services, and refueled during jaunts with an mouthwatering $4.95 Cuban sandwich (platanos extra). The Strataglass factory where I picked up our new dodger clears is there, as is McDonald Hardware (a family-owned hometown hardware store that has everything boaters need, and skips the “marine markup”) – I nearly lost Jamie in the narrow aisles!

We called Rogers Marine Services to give our Yanmar a checkup. John Rogers came recommended by friends who cruise their beautiful Florida-based Huckins powerboat, Cortado. John was GREAT and not just because he told us the engine was in good shape. Besides being an excellent diesel mechanic with a talent for clear explanations, he’s a USCG 1600 ton master / delivery skipper; he “gets” cruisers and our needs. FLL-bound boats: reach John at (954) 309-1004.

It was also a great time for me to work with Pam Wall on our upcoming Cruising Women seminar at the Annapolis boat show next month (just a few places left!). Pam is an icon in family cruising with tremendous experience, as well as an incredibly giving and helpful human who goes out of her way to make sure cruisers passing through her hometown of Fort Lauderdale find whatever they need. I’m grateful we met and felt that mutual “click” at the Annapolis show last fall.

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Pretty sure the dolphin was showing off! Species, anyone?

Not all of the extraction process was as enjoyable. It became plain that we had to replace our battery bank, which is a little painful (eased by our friend John, and some muscle from Niall and Mike on Gromit). We were generally stretched thin: taking on more in everyday life, because we had the opportunity and because we could. But I wouldn’t trade a single one of the things we did, from presenting at a Miami sailing club to time with new friends and memorable meetups with people we’d been in touch with over the years. But I did miss, and crave, our simpler life as cruisers.

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Four batteries off, four batteries on, nearly 200 lbs PER BATTERY. Yikes.

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You can only feel sorry for the officer dedicated to “protect and serve” who must issue laundry reprimands.

The clear sign that it was time to go was when a marine police officer stopped by Totem and told us to take our laundry down from the lifelines. City ordinance, you know, can’t be hanging it out! It’s not enforced unless reported, but a resident in one of the multi-million dollar homes fronting the anchorage had called us in. There are a whole host of things wrong there, but the benefits of Lake Sylvia’s anchorage outweighed any pettiness around this event: it’s free, a great Publix is walking distance from dinghy landing for provisioning, and Marine Mile is just a Lyft ride away. We simply finished drying those clothes spread on deck instead of fluttering in the breeze and were happy that a weather window had opened for us to leave.

Raising anchor at first light and sent off with a cheer from Jim, calling out from overhead on the 17th street bridge, Totem pointed into the Atlantic…and early start to help ensure enough light for the necessary eyeball navigation on arrival in Bimini.

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Just offshore: replicas of the Nina and the Pinta! They’re headed to Jupiter, FL this week.

Totem blog postIt is literally just a day trip from the Florida coast to the Bahamas. The short distance is treated with respect because the Gulf Stream must be crossed, and it can run several knots. That sets up the possibility for some truly nasty conditions when wind opposes the flow of current. It’s also the first time many boaters bring their vessel into a foreign country. Just two reasons why people make a big deal out of it, considering it’s about 50 miles away!

Patience is a virtue when waiting out winter systems, but we had a mellow day with calm seas and transited from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini was a mere nine hours. As we departed, Pam’s sister—a photographer and graphic artist—turned her talent and lens toward the ocean inlet for a beautiful shot of Totem. Thank you Wendy!

We would like to have made it further east, but yet another northerly wind forecast loomed and we didn’t feel like tackling the shallows of the Bahamas bank in poor conditions. Waking to squally skies and rain, it felt like a good choice to have stayed put. The anchorage we tucked into at the far end of the channel into North Bimini utterly lacked aesthetic appeal, but the recently dredged harbor-in-construction had great depth and a very sticky mud bottom…two things that can be hard to come by in the Bahamas. Clearance was friendly and efficient; one of the easiest examples of international clearance I can remember.

What the wind DID do is give us a great chance to truly road test a new design for clothes pins (pegs, clips, whatever you call them). With breeze solidly in the 30 knot range, we put up a heavy fleece blanket to get aired out, snapped on the FixClips, … and, well, check it out!

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DSC05103The way that blanket whipped around (and it did, ALL DAY), the FixClips had a thorough test. These fit variable widths, so you can use them on thin lifelines or fat stainless pipe; they have a simple locking mechanism that clamps them on tight. We were sent a few to try out last year, and I know they’re great in normal conditions…now we know they truly rock for high winds too (OK, so the Swedish manufacturer has a good demo video too). Our normal clothes pins wouldn’t stand up to what we put the FixClips through; we’d have lost pins, or laundry, or both. The only downside: they are bulkier and cost more than standard pegs. But given the fact I’m pretty sure I’ll *never* lose one and the UV-resistant material should give them a long life, it’s a good pick for cruisers.

When the wind did finally settle down we got to explore. Friends who are old hands in the Bahamas cautioned us not to develop strong impressions of the islands based on accessible, touristed Bimini; maybe expectations factored in, but we found it sweet. Supermarket smaller than our old garage. Pillowy-sweet Bimini coconut bread, hot from the oven, “like a coconut croissant” said Mairen. More golf carts than cars, and mostly with 3-digit license plates. Smiles or waves from passers-by, just because.

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The days of wind had kicked up sediment enough that the water clarity was poor, but that didn’t stop a few hours of fun splashing around.

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Testing out the new snorkeling masks. 42 Wallaby Way, anyone?

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Pelicans look suspended in the clear blue of Bahamian water

It felt good, SO GOOD, to just hang out as a family again. Walking on the beach, finding stray dogs to play with, looking for sea glass, reconnecting.

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The epic-sized hot tub at the nearby resort–  a monstrosity we forgive for also making wifi available to the anchorage– was just fine, thank you!

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Burial grounds for conch bones, in mountains behind various shacks and wharves in town.

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Invigorated by the prospect of so much to explore, so much to learn, so much to experience.

Poised for the Bahamas

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“I hear you’re putting Totem on the hard.” “Will you go out again?” In fact, we have no plans to park Totem for an extended stay on land (or in the water), and have never considered remaining in the US. But given the dearth of information in this space about what 2017 holds I can understand the speculation. We are on the cusp of departure and thrilled to be heading out for more adventures afloat.

Cascading events prolonged our departure, but the boat’s been humming, and legged out timing has shaped our direction. Routing clarity comes slowly after many shuffles on how we’ll fill the gaps between now (in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) and a year from now  (Pacific Ocean, via Panama Canal). It still has a lot of squiggles and question marks, but the bigger picture should stick.

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For many months, that year-long view was literally nothing more than get out of the US and back to the islands, spend a couple of months in Cuba, and explore Panama’s Guna Yala. (Remember that Plan is a four-letter word for cruisers! Corollary: Thar Be No Schedules)

We’d written the Bahamas off, but they’re now solidly ON, and their late arrival means I’m scrambling for information. Friday I got our Waterway Guide’s Bahamas, Turks & Caicos book. IT’S GORGEOUS. The last years of Western Pacific / Indian Ocean / Southern Atlantic sailing had poor guides, if any, and it put me off. What did exist covered too wide an area to be useful, so I stuck to travel guides instead and started thinking cruising guides weren’t important. You know what? They’re incredibly useful, I’d just been too long without an example of what a good guide offers. So with 2017 Bahamas edition in hand, instead of helping Jamie and the girls scrub the hull that morning, I did this:

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I did also buy a traveler’s guidebook for the Bahamas. I’m probably going to leave it behind, because the Waterway book is better, and has everything I need: the travel guide insights (cultural orientation,  things to bring, cool places to visit) AND annually updated cruising data (what to bring and where to provision, details for moorings and choice anchorages, the latest marina info– even updates on impacts from last fall’s hurricane, and recommendations for things islanders might need that we can ferry over).

Although schedules are the bane of cruising, I’ve happily added a fixed Must Be There date by signing on to present at the US Boat Show in Annapolis in April. Pam Wall and I will lead a 2-day Cruising Women seminar, and I’m giving a few additional presentations as part of the show’s Cruisers University. I’m very excited about this, especially the Cruising Women program. Jamie seems to have been born with saltwater in his veins; before we went cruising, it was important to me to seek information and skills. Women-only courses provided the shared perspective and camaraderie that best supported my goals.  If you sign up, tell me! I’d love to anticipate meetups.

It feels very good to be poised for Bahamas takeoff in Fort Lauderdale, but first we had to get south from Jacksonville to Miami for my friend Lynne Rey’s birthday. Schedules again? Maybe, but no way would I miss this since we could be there! Along the way, there wasn’t  a lot of wind, but some beautiful sunny days and mellow seas that meant Niall could combine studying with watchkeeping in the cockpit.

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Along the way we spent a couple of evenings hanging out with Kirk McGeorge. He’s done a couple of circumnavigations on a sistership, Gallivanter, and now does some crazy cool work building underwater submersibles with an outfit in Fort Pierce (he was a Navy diver, and drove Alvin- THE Alvin- on Titanic, way back when). The last time we saw Kirk was Australia, nearly five years ago! Cruising friendships like his are GOLD – you pick up right where you left off, despite intervening years.

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In Miami, Lynne, her husband Tony (we sailed together in college) and their kids hosted us at the Coral Reef Yacht Club. This made fun birthday celebrations, late nights in the cockpit, kids learning and playing together, and a lot of good times very easy.

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It also made it much easier for a visit from Kerry (the impressive endurance athlete / sailor / quadriplegic I sailed with last month). She gave our family and the Reys a preview of a powerful documentary she’s a part of that I hope will be ready to share publicly soon. Some tissues required after viewing before we could pose for a pic together, our thumbs in the air for Kerry’s nonprofit, ThumbsUp International. ThumbsUp connects people of all abilities to tackle athletic challenges, in particular by teaming able and disabled athletes.

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Please check out the Facebook page for ThumbsUp International and give it a like to show your support! Kerry would really like to nudge it over the 2,000 like hurdle: can we do it?! Follow and share!

More friends visited: we first knew Tiffany and Greg as “the Coast Guard Couple” when we met them in Mexico eight (!) years ago; we last caught up in Australia. They’ve traveled a loop around the world since then, by sea across the Pacific and by land from SE Asia to the UK. Both are Coast Guard Academy graduates, both are hard core professional seafarers, and they had great advice on college and maritime licensing for Niall. Just the folks to help toss the lines when it was time to head to the anchorage, right?

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And then, there was maintenance and repair. Lots of it. Because that’s one definition of the cruising life.

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To give you an inkling of that everyday fun on Totem, and a peek into what’s kept Jamie busy here in Florida:

Outboard: FINALLY FIXED. It’s been sick for five months. Diagnosis by mechanic in Jacksonville: failed CDI unit, but we replaced that and still no spark. Option two: bad coil. Ding ding ding ding! Wires from the coil had both broken…photo above. They were crimped by a strain relief device, but the break was hidden inside of a plastic sleeve. Great 11th hour help from our new friend Conor, who borrowed a flywheel puller from a Miami auto shop to get it done.

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Sundowners on Totem later, time to talk story with Conor (former cruising kid, now physicist) and his dad

Aft cabin: I went to a road trip to Miami with my friend Patty, and Jamie broke the aft cabin. He’s since rebuilt my workspace, relocated the solar and wind charge controllers to a newly-constructed locker, and cleaned up a bunch of wiring spaghetti. Few words for a LOT of work.

Dodger: As a sailmaker, Jamie knows his way around a sewing machine. But canvas work is “fiddly” (his description) and he hoped to outsource Totem’s new dodger sides. But after weeks of no joy or no action from service providers in northern Florida, he took our friends on Shanthi up on the offer to borrow their SailRite and made it himself. Templating with Tyvek from the hardware store, then constructing the final from Sunbrella, Strataglass, and Tenara thread…on the dock, until it rained, with child labor…as you do. It IS fiddly, but he does great work, and saving the expense is a great bonus.

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Before he could get to the canvas, the whole hard top was shifted forward: this meant changing the frame (it’s more vertical on the forward face now) and building new supports.

Deck hardware: fully reinstalled the repaired stanchion base that broke on our unpleasant passage from Bermuda to Connecticut.

Engine: Fixed pesky drip from fuel filters after troubleshooting. Replaced barbs with correct size, replaced 3-way valve fitting, and O-rings. Hopefully this saves the $250 racor replacement kit!

Electrical: We use a rugged Panasonic Toughbook for our nav computer. Both plug connections for the nine-year-old 12v charger had failed; solder now leads directly to the board. All good.

Plumbing: Replaced failing cockpit drain hoses (shared with galley sink drain: presumed grease buildup). Fixed flaw in primary water tank that prevents proper venting with a few holes (and finally found out the actual capacity, two years later- 73 gallons!). Discovered (and replaced) leaking outlet fitting in tank. Aft head required an unclogging adventure, then replacing seals and hose and other work that I’d rather not know too much about. Thanks to my sweetie for being The One That Deals with the Head on board.

…and that’s just what he did on Totem! On friend’s boats, Jamie helped install a solar panel, did a few (three? four? five? I lost track) rig evaluations, and helped get one tuned properly.

I married well.

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One of the more significant preoccupations outside of prepping Totem is working with coaching clients. We thoroughly enjoy helping people make the leap to successful cruising! More recently, the kids have gotten into a few of our Skype sessions, too: prospective cruising kids want to hear the real scoop directly from them. Sitting around the iPad, this is a pretty typical scene.

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We closed our our Miami stay by anchoring in Marine Stadium, a sweet little spot with near 360° protection and a killer view of the downtown Miami. Backlit by twinkling lights from the skyline at night, we could detect dolphins circling Totem only by loud huffs of their breath. An idyllic spot to raft up and make some great memories with the pretty Huckins, Cortado (which is for sale, by the way), and her crew.

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Totem from Cortado

Totem is now in Fort Lauderdale, on our final countdown to departure for the Bahamas. We don’t know when we’ll be back in the USA, but it’s probably some years. I’ve got an insane list, and it includes major items like, oh, battery bank replacement. Full watermaker servicing. Diesel mechanic services. Provisioning for 3 months in islands with limited stores, and high costs. Supplies for Bahamian communities still impacted by hurricane Mathew last fall. Then there are the incidentals “but we won’t be in the USA for how long?” that inflate our list. Here in the mainland, we have access to better breadth of goods, at a better quality, and a better value, than we will likely encounter for a long time.

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It’s been blowing for days, but Totem is in a protected anchorage. There is access to supplies. Anchorage neighbors stopping by to chat from their kayaks. Visits from shoreside dwellers, arriving with friendship, the gift of papaya, and lessons in art (thank you, Jim!).

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Life is beautiful. I’m grateful every day for the choices we have and our freedom as a family, and can’t wait to extend our adventures…starting soon in the Bahamas!

Cruising boat renovations

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“I may have broken the aft cabin.” This is the text I get from Jamie a few hours after I’ve departed Totem for an overnight road trip to Miami. The smoky-green smell of sawdust wafts to me from half a state away and the disarray of a deconstruction project easy to picture. The critical path project for our departure from the US for the Bahamas is to replace the soft sides for our hardtop dodger, so of course, the aft cabin is going to be torn apart.

It comes down to this: cruising boat projects are more likely to be done when you can than when you want to. Those you do when you must often leave something to be desired based on local limitations. And over time, these done-as-you-could projects accumulate into something that stands to benefit from a re-do.

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Kid / candy store

Here in Florida we have easy access to well-made, relatively affordable goods. It’s a short ride to a spectrum of lumber options and hardware. A selection of dying tools were readily replaced: drill, orbital sander, and a jigsaw Jamie’s had since he was 17. Quality wire at great prices was available with help from a friend. So a combination of two needs based in the aft cDSC04203abin—getting our batteries wired up correctly, and dealing with mold in the bamboo paneling—pushed this one to the fore.

Breaking the aft cabin stems from a must-do project that wasn’t done entirely right, based on local limitations. Nearly three years ago we replaced our battery bank back in Malaysia. Moving the bank location under our bunk helped address weight distribution on Totem, eliminating a port list. That move required different wiring to connect to the bus bar nearer the old nav station location. We didn’t have access to the right sized wires, so Jamie made it work by patching long cables.

The knee bone’s connected to the shin bone: charge controllers wired to the battery bank had been installed on a piece of bamboo paneling that got moldy thanks to the damp on board (possibly starting from this unpleasant passage, but condensation during the recent cold months was a kicker). Blinking lights reflecting off the headliner over our bunk at night doesn’t make for a romantic atmosphere (and is just kind of annoying!), so there’s a whole new utility closet being built in the cabin to house these in beautiful organization.

This might have been postponed, but access to the right materials to do it right bumped it up. The kicker was some very nice wires that friends helped us source (Asif’s a rocket scientist, a pilot, and a boat owner– thus knows not just a few things about wiring but a great place to buy quality marine-ready stuff for less).

There are a lot of concurrent projects on Totem right now, and while I’m dreaming about getting the dodger and bimini done (it will happen! It has to) it’s pretty exciting to see the improvements in our cabin.

Life rolls on! The roadtrip was relatively spontaneous. My friend Patricia Leat takes special needs kids and families out sailing on the healing waters of the ocean: she wanted to meet with her friend and Active Disabled Americans board member, Kerry Gruson, in Miami. As it turned out, I’m the one who lucked into a sail with this inspiring woman: Kerry has been paralyzed from the neck down for decades, but despite the limited mobility in her arms she helms the boat with tenderness and intensity. Team Paradise is the Miami-based organization that helps people of all levels of ability get out on the water. Wheelchair? Other needs? No problem, they figure it out.

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I also met up with Pam Wall in Fort Lauderdale. Pam and I are delivering a two-day Cruising Women seminar alongside the spring boat show in Annapolis and had some coordinating to do! Between those two priorities, Patty and I worked in some meetups (Halden Marine, with the supremely helpful JT who provided watermaker troubleshooting for us from halfway around the world, and at Strataglass, to get materials for Totem’s dodger). Of course, you really should have a Cuban sandwich in Miami, too.

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We’ve been lucky to spend time with special people, like my old nanny / au pair, Jorunn, who visited from Norway. I haven’t seen her in at least 40 years, but the face and the voice – I knew them, and it was wonderful.

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Or hanging out with our friends on MV Cortado, who we can’t wait to see again down in Miami soon.

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The ocean beaches, where hunting ospreys flaunted their catch, are best visited with a friend.

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There are homemade pasta dinners with the McMermaids, another family who feels at one with the ocean.

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Spontaneous visits by neighbors Kristen, Hans and their daughters, via dinghy, keeping our psyches closer to cruising while tied to a dock.

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Getting to know Jacksonville a little: Anne Frank’s diary facsimile, in an exhibit at the Museum of Science & History.

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Yet another Amazon delivery,.

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And yet another sunset.

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Guns and cruising

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“What kind of guns do you have on board?” This was the opening question from a new acquaintance at a cocktail party. Loaded with assumptions from someone who doesn’t know us, and who has no intention of traveling the way we do. Walking down the dock the other day, a woman was overheard talking about practicing at the range because they were going to Mexico, and she’d need her gun there. It’s a big scary world out there, gotta protect yourself!

Or…it isn’t, and you just have to ditch the paranoia and think about it a little. The reality of our personal safety risks as cruisers is out of scale with those perceptions. But I guess in the “if it bleeds, it leads” media, a lot of people are lead to believe that the world outside the US borders is a dangerous place. It’s just not right. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve felt safer outside the USA during our years of travels than I do back at home. The scariest moment in our eight years of cruising came in California and had nothing to do with malicious intent…but that’s another story. What I wish the guy at the cocktail party had asked is “how do you stay safe?” This is something we think about all the time! Besides a healthy appreciation for our own lives, we carry our most precious cargo on board – our three kids. Any impression that we are cavalier about safety is misplaced.

Piracy hotspots are well known and easy to avoid. Our encounters at sea are so minimal they’re almost not worth mentioning. We were scouted in the South China Sea, a definite hotspot, but only for commercial vessels. There was a fishing boat in Sri Lanka that followed us for an entire day. We know it was a bunch of fishermen, and MAYBE it could have spun into something more than that, but that’s pure speculation. When the sun got low and they were still tailing us, we radioed our buddy boat and they basically beelined to our position… the fishermen left. (FWIW, these same guys traded us gorgeous fish!)

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Just countries get an unwarranted bad reputation; others simply need to be understood as more complex than just “bad” in general. O on couple of times we’ve chosen to travel in places that were so-called “dangerous” after our research concluded we’d be able to visit with minimal security risks. Papua New Guinea is one of those countries with a terrible reputation. It can be dangerous and has some crazy violent crime, just like the USA. But with a little bit of research, and understanding both where and why crime occurs, we made a plan to avoid problems and spent an unforgettable three months with few concerns. We had basic rules: we mapped locations with positive first-hand reports (I wrote about it here), we avoided places that were trouble hotspots (unique dynamics to PNG with extraction industries for mineral/timber/fish, or population centers), and we always trusted our gut: if a place didn’t feel right, we moved on.

Mexico is a more familiar for most Americans, like the woman down the dock who thought she’d need to arm herself. I chalk this up to lack of understanding and media influence. Staying safe in Mexico mostly comes down to “don’t be stupid” (walk around Tijuana drunk at 2am? Involved in drug trade of any kind?). We paid attention to the coconut telegraph and local reputations (watch your dinghy in Mazatlán, and your outboard in Barra.). Pretty sure most cruisers who have been to Mexico would agree with me: we feel safer there than we do in the US by a wide margin!

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Petty theft happens. If you think disguising your outboard to look beat up and old will make it less appealing, think again. It’s an outboard. Our US flag was probably stolen off the back of the boat in Seychelles, but we’re not even positive that was deliberate vs slippery line and knots coming undone. Our horseshoe was taken off the back of the boat in Labuan, Malaysia…probably. I think it was secure? Know the reputation of places you go, what to do or not do, and then be open. We’ve also noticed that folks who assume people are out to get them until proven otherwise are more likely to have problems with petty theft. There’s no statistical significance to the observation, but something demonstrated often enough.

With a return to the Caribbean ahead, we have a lot to learn about staying safe. Once again, it’s an area with risks to learn about and decide how to approach. Should we put bars across the hatches? Are there destinations to rule out? There’s a lot to figure out, but we’ll do our best, and we sure don’t think we’re safer by staying at home.

Back to the question we had at that cocktail party about how many guns are on Totem. Diplomatic me wants to say that guns on board are a personal choice and your choice is fine, but I’m not feeling very diplomatic. Guns aboard are a bad idea for a pile or reasons. Had the German boat recently boarded in the Philippines not had guns aboard, the woman aboard would probably still be alive. So would Sir Peter Blake.

While cruising in Mexico, we met a former green beret colonel out cruising with his family. His training is extensive, and his opinion- which I respect- was that the training needed for a gun on board is WAY outside the realm of the typical cruiser. It’s not just about going to the range, and how to handle it, but the microdecisions about when to use it. Even with all of his training, he felt he was safer without a gun on board than with one.

Aside from the fact that the best way to be shot by a gun aboard is to have a gun aboard, it’s a hassle. You have to declare them on entry in a new country. That country will almost certainly take them for you until you clear out, and your port of entry and intended port of clearance could be a long distance apart. Lying and hiding guns? Laws vary of course, but can mean incarceration or death if they’re found! Go ahead, cowboy. If someone is determined to target us and to take our stuff, I’d rather just let them take it than risk greater personal injury to my kids or myself.

Maintenance: neither routine or exotic

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One of the aphorisms of cruising describes our lifestyle as performing routine maintenance (or repairs) in exotic locations. This rings true, for better and for worse. “If you can’t fix it, be able to live without it” is another truism for voyagers, and a good reason to go simple. Bundle these with the additional reality that most tasks in our floating life take more time than they do in a normal (fixed, land-based, connected) existence. That’s a good summary of life on Totem right now, although northern Florida is NOT exotic, and this particular outboard fix has proved to be anything but routine.

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Jamie does all our outboard maintenance and repair (ably assisted by #1 grease monkey, Siobhan). A service manual is key: those exploded diagrams and part number references. He’s become very capable, but this time, the unshakable problem (and shifting symptoms) ultimately flummoxed him. Here in Jacksonville, Florida, professional servicing is affordable, parts are available, and we can finally be warm! We have no interested in going any longer without a dependable outboard. Totem’s Our RIB doesn’t row well–none of them really do–and we can’t wait to be liberated from the necessity of docks to get ashore.

The “fix it or deal” aphorism is all too true: when you’ve become accustomed to a creature comfort that suddenly goes away, your everyday life may go from comfortable to camping in a swoop.  It’s a good reason to try and equip minimally, even if you think some choices skew you towards camping. It is so much easier to add than it is to take away. We’ve also seen people who probably over-equipped, then later dropped out of cruising because the reality of constant maintenance to support that gear was more cost or time (or both) than they anticipated. Simply put, cruising involves a LOT of this maintenance/repair thing, and when you’re doing it right, it’s in exotic locations.

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Totem is middle-of-the road in terms of gear. I’m grateful Jamie has the hands-on mechanical skills needed. Shop manuals (like the one for ourourboard, top photo) should be on essential gear lists. Because when we finally had a diagnosis on the part (or maybe, two parts) which are behind our outboard woes, Jamie can see in the exploded diagram how to install it himself, and use the part number to source spares/replacement affordably.

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With hindsight, I also appreciate that some of the things I thought were essential to a happy life aboard…weren’t. For example, back on land, we had a big chest freezer in the garage (gotta put that steer share somewhere!) as well as a standard upright in our capacious kitchen. I never would have dreamed that life without a freezer wouldn’t be a problem. But that was one of the early adjustments to life aboard, and although we installed a small freezer a couple of years ago, I’ve never quite gotten used to using it. At this moment, it’s entirely empty!

Staying put to get this done (whyyyyy must it always take so long?) opens other opportunities. Like giving a presentation to a standing-room-only group at Jacksonville University: I love sharing our stories! And hanging out after with families who have dedicated chunks of their lives to cruising or full-time RV travel. Some long anticipated meetups, like Sara, Tim and kids– coaching clients we’ve gotten to know over the last few months–and the family from Ditching Suburbia who I’ve been in touch with for years now. They’re six year RV life vets currently WWOOFing on a Salatin-modeled farm a couple of hours away. Isn’t their name great?! It says so much in two words. And this family – they are ALL that.

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I don’t even want to know! (Jamie with Mike, from Ditching Suburbia, and Tim)

Jennifer and I started emailing each other when we were on opposite sides of the world a few years ago. Following the route she’s taken with her husband Mark on their Nordhavn, Starlet, has been my dream fodder for places to go in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. It was great to finally intersect, and no surprise to find her as fun and positive in person as she is over the internet. I wish I could say we’ll be seeing them again soon, but this boat is South Pacific bound. Give me a year or so…

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When not making plans to meet up in the marina, we’ve been hosted “off campus” by a local family I hoped we’d connect with on the way south. Here’s another great name: McMermaids! It was inevitable when the McCarthy took their water-happy girls cruising. They’re JAX residents and marine scientists who brought us into JU.

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There have been happy hours lost in the maze of books at Chamblin’s, just steps from the marina and the first bookstore I’ve ever seen which might just rival Powell’s. Besides the sheer joy of exploring books, I’ve found some winners to help our travel plans (or just dream with), and we’ve unloaded at least 1o0 lbs of books from Totem there. It is a maze: there are occasionally “you are here” signs with a floor plan to assist. It is FULL of temptation.chamblins

I AM SO EXCITED! Thanks to contributions from my brother and my aunt (and a killer year-end sale), Totem’s deck is now decorated with a paddleboard and SUP excursions are in our future. Our marina neighbor Kristen and her daughter picked me up for the inaugural jaunt. I think I’m supposed to share this SUP with the kids… going to have to work on that.

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175 Totem Art Kids FilterMeanwhile: the On The Wind podcast we recorded with Andy Schell & Mia Karlsson of 59 North went live! Our whole family sat in on the session around Totem’s main cabin table back in Annapolis not long ago, and we talked about everything from the myriad of ways to get started cruising (and our advice on getting started), how we did it, and other shared experiences on the big blue. Play from the link below, go here for iTunes, or here for Stitcher / Android.

This marina we’ve tucked into has convenience. The grocery store is walking distance. There are gobs of available services and resources. It’s an easy place to take care of paperwork and bureaucracy (Cuba permits, new passports for the kids) from a comfortable position. We’re really enjoying meeting up with people. And we’ll enjoy it to the fullest… but meanwhile, to a one, this crew cannot wait to put our homeland on the horizon and find new adventures again.

 

From Cape Town to Connecticut: Totem’s 2016

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Looking back on the milestones, adventures, and misadventures of 2016: what a year it was! Jamie’s a database guy: thanks to him we have some serious metrics and some silly ones. We closed out with 3,057 days as cruisers, one of our biggest mileage years yet, and a host of unforgettable experiences.

14 – countries/territories visited in 2016: South Africa; Namibia; British Overseas Territories of St Helena, Ascension, Montserrat, and Bermuda; Barbados; Dominica; overseas departments of France: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Martin; territories of the Netherlands, Saint Eustatius and Sint Maartin; USA

11,027 – miles in 2016 (9,582 NM)… a daysail less than our 2010 miles sailed.

50,244 – miles total (43,661 NM), yeah, we passed 50k!

266 – miles of best 24-hour run (231 NM), Ascension Island to Barbados

3,570 – miles of longest passage (3,102 NM), Ascension Island to Barbados completed in 17 days

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Somewhere in the Atlantic. March or April

1 – number of kayaks lost at sea, between Bermuda and USA – big waves + broken stanchion = sad day!

1 – number of medical events, when a barefoot Siobhan stepped on a cactus on Ile Au Cabrit, Guadeloupe. Spines removed and patient remains a staunch barefooter!

8 – bells tolled for Totem’s beloved first hamster, Jiaozi, who joined us in Thailand and ended her watch in Martinique

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Ghost town of Kolmanskopp, Namibia. February

90 – kilograms of propane (198 lbs) for cooking…and some cabin heat, late in the year

13 – presentations given from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake

66 – fieldtrips! – epic hikes, rich museums, fascinating people, incredible experiences: a mid-Atlantic BBC relay station, Napoleon’s (first) tomb, JFKs birth home, sea turtles laying eggs at dawn, the White House’s West Wing, science lessons from The Global Dude for starfish, ghost towns in the desert, etc. Lucky humans we are.

1 – number of boats we watched sink for an artificial reef in Barbados

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What a kid! Guadeloupe. May

11 – cuteness rating (1 to 10 scale) of baby goats on cactus-laden Ile Au Cabrit that certain barefoot girls liked to chase.

0 – number of elusive f@&#ing whale sharks seen in St Helena, at yet ANOTHER place “everyone” sees them (that’s four hotspots now)

500ish – number of visitors on Totem in 2016. Total speculation, and probably low, between a couple of open boat parties and a general bias for socializing with our fellow humans

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Legal capacity? Noank, Connecticut. August

55 – degrees Fahrenheit (12.8  C) of the Benguela Current along the edge of the Namib Desert made for amazing animal life: sea birds, whales, dolphins, sea lions, PENGUINS, and jellyfish

3.9 – depth in feet (1.2 meters), the least we’ve been ever (by far!), is the marina we’re now in – dock master said we may touch at low tide with Totem’s draft of 6.0 feet – he was right…

3.6 – number of feet (1.1 meters) by which we did NOT fit under bridges Totem was required to pass under, engendering creativity to squeeze beneath.

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Rooftop drinks with Mike & Kim before the White House. November

This is about the numbers… but the year was really about people. The new friends, like Mike & Kim (above)  and fellow traveling souls Matt & Wendy & family (below) who gave us indelible memories along the way.

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Veterans of the full-time traveling life! Charleston, December

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It was about the many reunions with familiar faces, and thanks to the internet, all the “old friends” we could meet for the first time.

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Manhattan. September

The data on 2015– 365 days, 7,988 miles, 2 oceans, 1 boat–is posted here for giggles and judgment.

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South Carolina. December

Are we in Florida yet?

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Apologies to those I’m about to offend, but the ICW is boring as ___. Flashes of pretty, the odd dolphin, aren’t enough of a tradeoff for the monotony of motoring day after day along narrow channel. If the weather was fine, it might cross into the realm of pleasurable for a short stretch, but in conditions we’ve had these miles are just something to get over with. To answer the question in the title: no, not in Florida yet! But Charleston for Christmas, along Totem’s slow path south down the ICW, is going to be great.

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So foggy we couldn’t see from one mark to the next

Waking to temperatures in the 30s is getting old. But it’s Jamie has taken the overwhelming brunt of the chill, standing for hours and hours on end at the helm. Hand-steering is the  norm: partly because the autopilot isn’t a good match for curvier stretches of the ICW. It’s also more tuned for offshore use, and tends to fish around too much for the narrow channels. But these factors are trumped by our failing spray dodger. You can’t see through it any more, so punching buttons for +1 / -1 on the autopilot while gazing out from a more protected spot isn’t an option. Meanwhile, Niall and I had a good laugh when we learned the itchy/sore spots we developed on our feet weren’t actually some fungus or infection, but a product of cold exposure (check) and poor circulation (lots of sitting around the boat while motoring).

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The bridge tenders are often a treat to talk to

Shoaling (we draw 6′) and bridges (with everthing stripped, we’re 64’4″) take patience and awarenss. South of Beaufort SC, the ICW water level is tidal (above, it’s influenced by wind): when Totem’s rig is too tall, we wait. We had to wait for THREE HOURS one day, and still needed to rig up the full kit of ballast to get under, but at least we fit.

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Pretty scenery, and pretty weird spec McMansions along the ICW

The weather has changed our eating habits, too. Salads normally feature, and being back in the land of mid-latitude veggies means bingeing on lettuce and other greens that were harder to find in the tropics. But now the cucumbers and tomatoes purchased in Beaufort are languishing because, well, they’re cold and cold is not very appealing. Instead it’s soups, stews, casseroles… basically anything we eat to keep warm! There’s something in the oven every day, because an uninsulated boat oven is a pretty good proxy for a heater on board.

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Did I mention the rain? Horizon level…Totem still in “induced heel” mode.

Is this whiny? That isn’t my style, but I’m also not going to paint a rosy picture of what’s been an uncomfortable stretch. Ultimately though I’m an optimist and believe it’s a choice to be happy, to find it wherever you are. In that vein, although these last couple of weeks haven’t made me a fan of the ICW, there are plenty of bright spots.

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The marshes look on fire in early morning light

Like the day we lingered in Carolina Beach to see old friends Frank & Karen from Tahina Expeditions. We first met in Tahiti, later hung out with in Australia, and last said goodbye to in Thailand nearly three years ago.

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Long history of card sharking with the Tahina crew

Beaufort, NC’s Homer Smith Marina offered unexpected hospitality. We picked it because it was the cheapest dockage in Beaufort where we could plug in to run our space heater overnight. Homer Smith came with a helping of friendly assistance, free laundry, a loaner vehicle, and offers to help with propane or whatever we needed. Shrimpers offload their catch here, and sell to the public, but the manager wouldn’t let us pay for the 2 lbs of fresh Carolina shrimp I wanted (thank you Matt, they were so sweet!) and gave us a free night when weather delayed our departure. The guys sorting shrimp in the shed pretty much made my day, joking around with each other and warmly answering my questions.

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The SSCA’s cruising station hosts in Beaufort, Normandie and Michael, treated us to lunch at a Mexican restaurant, where over horchata and margaritas (oh sweet memories!) we traded stories and discovered we had been in the SAME ANCHORAGES at pretty much the SAME TIMES, back in 2009 and 2010 in Mexico! It is a small, small cruising world — for real. (Normandie writes women’s fiction, and I love–LOVE–that she nails descriptions of cruising and sailing. I mean, of course she does! But that’s unusual to find in books that aren’t about sailing per se.)

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dsc02924We’ve had a good time with the Rockhopper crew, who leapfrogged us after Oriental, and sent back reports on bridge height and shoaling that were a great help for anticipating where we’d have issues to anticipate as we followed in their wake. Suzanne isn’t big on personal pictures so we took one of our feet instead!

There’s something about the sight of spanish moss hanging from trees cropping up as if a sign we’d crossed some invisible line in South Carolina. Spanish moss and frosty weather seem incongruous: this bodes well for warmer days ahead. Until then, Jamie’s cockpit lounge wear includes wears a one-piece fleece suit under a full set of foul weather gear, plus a hat and ski gloves that Frank passed along. Our hamster, Mochi, builds herself an igloo from cotton wadding and an old sock. We hibernate below deck as much as possible. We cuddle up together to watch a movie and share body heat in the evenings. We have actually used a hot water bottle at night.

Smart birds flying SOUTH.

Smart birds flying SOUTH.

A few hours ago, Totem tied up at the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina. Welcomed by the dock staff and one of the liveaboards on arrival, with an expansive facility decorated to the hilt for the season, this is going to be a sweet spot for a holiday week….and it’s forecast to be in the 60s and 70s again!

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How to fit a 64’4″ rig under a 64′ bridge

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We’re never going down the Intracoastal Waterway, I said. We’re too tall for the ICW, I said. Totem’s rig is about 68’ over the water, when everything is attached. The ICW is sprinkled with bridges; many of them open, quite a few do not. The controlling height over water for those fixed bridges is 65’ (and, there’s a 64’er in there just for fun). Totem doesn’t fit, but that’s fine, we’d rather sail offshore anyway. Besides being more fun than motoring, it’s faster. We’d get to Charleston in two and a half days going offshore; motoring down the ICW takes a multiple of that.

…And then we headed down the ICW anyway, motoring about 185 miles from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC.

Why? Because we made that fatal error in cruising: we had a schedule. Only one week to get from Norfolk (where Niall sat for the SAT on Saturday Dec. 3) to Charleston, SC (where he was due to take the ACT exam the following Saturday). For non-US readers, these exams are THE two standardized tests that high school students take for college/university applications. One week of time to make what should be a two-and-a-half-day offshore passage. No problem, right? Well, big problem if the forecast isn’t right. And it wasn’t. So with a gloomy weather outlook and the SATs over, we strategized how to squeeze our 68’ tall boat under 65’ bridges. Oh, that 64’ bridge that doesn’t fit the mold. Dangit!

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Stripping all instruments from the mast to prepare included Maretron weather station, windex (wind direction indicator), anchor light, and VHF antenna. The windex was brought down; the rest were taped up aloft. We filled all of Totem’s fuel tanks, water tanks and jerry cans to add ballast; then we measured, carefully, once again. Final height over water: 64’4″. When it came time to go under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge, we’d induce heel. And no, you can’t wait for the tide to go down. Water levels in that part of the ICW aren’t influenced by the moon, but by the weather. Wind from the south or storm systems can elevate levels, but there’s no tide to help us underneath.

More than a few people shared this video of a boat with forced heel in order to fit under a bridge. I swore we’d never do something like that to our Totem. Thanks to the 64′ air draft at Wilkerson, and our 64’4″, well… we were going to induce heel, too. When will the lesson stick that I should never say never?

Changes in plans bring silver linings. An extra couple of days in Norfolk meant finally meeting a friend in person. Always fun to bring out the weapons ceremonial cultural tools from PNG as props behind sea stories.

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We were treated to a fabulous raclette dinner (and a trip to Costco!) with the French-American family of a blog reader that has their own plans to go voyaging with kids someday.

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Departure from Norfolk was a gray drizzly morning. On the first day motoring “the ditch” had fifteen bridges and a set of locks to pass through.

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In company are two boats: our old friend Bill on Solstice (we’ve crossed two oceans together!) and the new-to-cruising Gromit crew. Mike, Brittany and their three girls (blogging here) bought the boat circumnavigated by a Canadian family that we met back in Malaysia. It’s slightly surreal to see Gromit again! Good company, but we had to leapfrog them the first day to get Niall to his exams on time, via rental car from Beaufort, NC.

It was a slow slog of bascule bridges, trestle bridges, fixed bridges…lots of rain, and not much traffic.

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Most of the bridges have a gauge so you can judge the available height based on the water level. Some are easier to read than others. At least we know this one is well over the 64’4″ we need!

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Besides being rainy, it’s cold. 30s overnight, 40s in the daytime. The channel dredged to depth that accommodates Totem’s 6′ draft is narrow, requiring constant attention at the helm. And because the old question of time and money has delayed replacing the dodger sides, the helm is exposed to the elements. Jamie is a champ: I kept him company and took the wheel now and then, but he did 99% of the three and a half days of motoring to Beaufort in less than comfortable conditions. At least on a few stretches the headsail gave a nice pull.

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The scenery is beautiful. I’ve heard people love this aspect of the ICW; of course,they mainly travel when it’s at least 20 degrees warmer and there are still leaves on the trees. I hadn’t given the it much thought since the route was written off as “not what we were doing” in my head. Absorbing the landscape of the inner banks was a gift.

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Long stretches held no signs of civilization; at other times, the intimacy of homes along the waterfront, where you can almost hear the TV flashing through a back window, felt uncomfortably close. And then there were the hidden gems, like this mysterious camper (Airstream?) overgrown with vines, or the hint of a classic car under cover in a back yard.

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We anchored in the water north of the Alligator-Pungo channel: turns out, military jets come here to play.

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Quiet evenings at anchor made for fun family time. The kids decided we were due to start holiday decorating, and so we did.

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What else did we do? Niall logging many hours daily on ACT practice tests and study guides. The girls did a lot of reading. There were a few rounds of Hamilton sing-a-longs. Ah, who am I kidding… that’s a nightly event currently (thank you Cindy!).

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The glassy anchorage at Alligator-Pungo was a perfect spot to finalize preparation for inducing heel to fit under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge the next day. We estimated we should have at least 6 degrees, and more was better. Talk about the PERFECT example of real-life trigonometry, just in time for our exam-cramming kid! Meanwhile, going aloft again, Jamie added a pigstick to the mast. PVC pipe, about 3″ diameter and 3′ long, facing forward. On a dead slow approach, if the stick hits the bridge — we bail out. If it passes under, no problem. All the jerry cans and a 50 gallon bladder tank filled with water were strapped on the starboard side deck.

As we got close to the bridge, further heel was induced. Additional weight at the end of the boom, swung out starboard, would further increase our angle of heel. First, our 18hp Tohatsu was tied on. Then, the spare anchor, a 70 lb CQR. This came with Totem: it’s the first time we’ve used it. Next, a couple of full jerry cans, and a heavy bag of rigging hardware.

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Then, we added the kids. Probably should have put PFDs on. Please don’t judge.

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We estimate we had 500 lbs on the boom, in addition to an extra 700 lbs on the starboard side deck. To top it all off, Jamie opened a through hull and we flooded the bilge with another 40 gallons or so of swamp water. At Wilkerson, the water gauge read a about 63’11”.

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Hooo boy. Boom OUT, heel ON!

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The pigstick test worked: a sigh of relief as it passing under the last of the girders.

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Yeah yeah yeah yeah! A very happy family.

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Jamie’s comment: size doesn’t matter. Trig does.

A few resources were especially helpful down the Norfolk to Beaufort, NC, path for the ICW:

I made a document that outlined our progress by hazard (and, what we’d do about each hazard). Inputs to these: Active Captain, the Salty Southeast Cruisers’ Net, and the ICW cruisers guide. Water levels at Neuse as a proxy for what we might see at Wilkerson. It’s amazing what details are in the USCG notice to mariners and US Army Corp of Engineers sites for updates on dredging and mark placement. The human factor is always the best, and in true cruiser tradition, the best came from a roundup of “ICW doulas” who were a big help with our last-minute decision to go down the ditch instead of making an offshore passage. My friend Judy Hildebrand, a delivery skipper who has driven boats (including Totem’s sisterships) up and down the ICW many many times. Nicola, Suzanne, and many more members of the awesome ICW subgroup from Women Who Sail.

It was beautiful if chilly trip. I’d like to think that was “roll credits!” but… well, never say never. Looks like we’ll start down the ICW again, leaving from Beaufort tomorrow…

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem... already sporting an ICW moustache!

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem… already sporting an ICW moustache!