Guests on a boat: how our friends nailed it

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

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

So, what makes a good guest on a boat?

Mindful of scarce resources

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

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

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

Courier service!

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

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

Minimizing our cost

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

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

Nica in Totem’s cockpit, underway in Guna Yala

Remembering who is on holiday

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

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

painting on the boat

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

Getting involved

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

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

Being flexible

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

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

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

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

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

kids play at tropical island

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

Lasting reminders

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

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

aprils maple syrup for breakfast

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

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

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