Hurricane Maria watch: real-time weather

MtHartman

pinterest real time weatherThe news that Maria has strengthened from category 1 to category 5 hit like a gut punch. Learning this update at dinner last night stopped all conversation, then brought on questions: how does this happen in only half a day? Has it ever? Dreaded already for the track this storm is forecast to trace near Irma’s fresh path, prospects for Maria’s impact now feel unbearably worse.

While we waited for news of Irma from a safe perch in St Lucia I summarized the tools for hurricane season weather forecasts that we use most on Totem. Not two weeks later it’s happening again, unbelievable as it feels to watch another major hurricane cut a path through Caribbean islands.

These are the resources we look to for real-time data observations of conditions. It is difficult not to obsessively watch for updates, hoping for news that the friends and islands we care about can catch a break, that a wobble can mean a lower impact on lives and homes and infrastructure.

What’s the wind doing?

WindAlert has real time wind observations from land and marine stations. Jamie was up into the night watching these until Irma took them out. This little station in Martinique shows wind as Maria passed by overnight—that wobble to the north sparing Martinique.

WindAlert wind Maria caribbean

Airport weather stations are another good source, like the one on Guadeloupe via WindFinder.

Windfinder airport weather station

What’s the system doing?

Radar gives us a good look at the size and scale of the active system. Accuweather is usually one of the tabs open to feed us updates. This was the view that greeted me this morning, no good news for Dominica.

Accuweather radar Maria caribbean

What are the boats doing?

A good way to tell what’s happening on the water is to check sites that show live AIS reports, like MarineTraffic. Commercial vessels transponding by satellite will show traffic patterns beyond the land-based stations that the Class B vessels like us (only picked up on coastal repeaters) reflect. And at times like this, it’s a big ol hole where the system is – and boats running away from the path.

MarineTraffic AIS Maria caribbean

In a way, live updates are like watching a slow-motion train wreck that is another hurricane tracing across the Caribbean. Emotions on edge, updates like the cat 5 upgrade and eye tracking over Dominica push me to tears.

The wobble north last night spared the many, many boats that cluster in Martinique but it nailed Dominica, just to the north. Our favorite island stop in the Caribbean thus far, it is also one of the poorest in the Caribbean. Yet after hurricane Irma, Dominica donated US$200,000 in aid to the USVI, and sent additional containers of supplies for relief: this island that has so little to give, giving anyway, to those in their island community who needed them. Hopefully this generosity will be reflected back to them, as they will surely need it.

Looking across Prince Rupert Bay at Portsmouth, Dominica

Looking across Prince Rupert Bay at Portsmouth, Dominica

I think about our brief visit in Dominica last month, and know that the forest where we walked with ghosts in the ruins of a fort is no longer the leafy path.

_DSC9399

I look at a card given tor us by a man in Portsmouth; he had paddled out to Totem and traded fruit for clothes and food. I look at the seed bracelets I wear and think about Joanai, another Portsmouth resident who made these, and hope he has not suffered.

_DSC9792

On Totem, last night was a slumber party as our kids soak up all the time they can with their good friends. In the tangle of bodies on the main cabin sole I know there’s comfort in that proximity, as we all watch and wait.

A hike with friends: guided by Fatty Goodlander from Mt Hartman Bay to Clarke's Court

A hike with friends: guided by Fatty Goodlander from Mt Hartman Bay to Clarke’s Court

Old friends, new friends: a dinghy full of cruising teens

Old friends, new friends: a dinghy full of cruising teens

Hurricane Irma: sailing to safety, how you can help

Totem in Rodney Bay for Irma

Totem and crew are in Grenada. Time and mobility were our key advantages to get safely far from the devastating path of Irma when others could not. When Irma made landfall at Barbuda, we were secure in St Lucia. Clouds streamed from the west at sunset, sucked in the “wrong” direction by Irma. We watched the system’s arrival via glowing laptop screens, as Jamie stayed up half the night glued to live data from weather stations until they succumbed – then followed as best we could in the aftermath, waiting anxiously for news from the friends squarely in Irma’s track.

In the days that followed, a few things became apparent. First, that the destruction in the islands is staggering. Our friend relaying to his evacuated wife that “there is nothing to come back to.” The first pictures to filter out showed destruction beyond imagination, descriptors like Biblical proportions and post apocalyptic all too fitting. First person accounts of the storm and the aftermath describing unimaginable chaos. For those of us making our homes on the water, how terrible to see large boats tossed like toys; piled up on top of each other, upside down, crushed into the corners of “hurricane hole” bays.

One of the early images circulating on social media

One of the early images circulating on social media

It also became clear how tenuous the safety net of these islands is: with no power, no cellular network, the communications have been deeply challenged. In the struggle to get word out and disseminated, misinformation spread.

What’s also evident is the resilience and community of islanders. And they need every ounce of this, because media attention is focused elsewhere. The breakdown at relief in finding friends are safe is sobered with news that desperation in a devastated, disconnected land has turned to violence and looting as the situation is increasingly dire.

There are several organizations offering immediate assistance which can use support.

In Puerto Rico, cruisers Tory Fine and Jon Vidar (Sail Me Om) turned their skills to organize Sailors Helping. What they have done in short order is tremendous. An update from this afternoon: “Today we helped a family get off of St. John, have helped organize boats to Jost Van Dyke, St John, and Tortola, and have raised about $4,000 directly while pooling efforts with a few other organizations and private donors to have access to almost 10 times that to fills boats and planes to the islands.” It continues: “In less than two hours, we have at least two boats going to St Thomas or Tortola, a plane being inspected so it can start flying next week, and a 180′ cargo ship all willing to help bring supplies to the islands and hopefully some people back; We have found four people temporary housing in San Juan; We may have a ride for a trauma surgeon to get to Tortola and a family to get off of St. John; And we’ve raised $2,000 that will go directly to purchasing supplies to fill these vessels.”

They are in tune with what’s needed…NOW. “The islands DO NOT need direct cash, or anymore clothes, first aid kits or baby supplies. They do need cots to sleep on, tarps for shade, food and water, and building supplies. This is where we will be focusing our efforts.”

To read the latest updates, see the Sailors Helping Facebook page. To volunteer or make a donation, visit the Sailors Helping website. And while the comments above reference USVIs and BVIs, that’s not the limit of their focus—at top of the wish list: a peace keeping group to evacuate large number of people at once from St Martin (where the reports of destruction and raiding have been extreme).

sailors helping

Tortola-based Three Sheets Sailing is another example of cruiser solidarity. Safely away (yet close by, and with access to US postal service delivery) in St Croix they’ve joined other charter skippers and now have four boats to shuttle between St Croix and the affected islands. To donate, visit their GoFundMe site; for more information, see the Three Sheets Sailing and Yacht Sea Boss Facebook pages.

For regular updates, follow Where the Coconuts Grow: Jody and baby Brig have evacuated from Tortola, but her husband Peter stayed behind and has the miracles of both a functional tender and a sat phone, offering early information of the real impact. Their boat/home is a total loss, and livelihood too. Jody’s continuing to feed updates to help the greater good, just as Peter works tirelessly for the same on the ground.

Windtraveler: the Tortola-based family’s boat and charter business are both probably victims to Irma, but that’s not flagged the energy of mom Brittany from fighting tirelessly for her home community. Scott arrives soon with resources and assistance: he’s buying supplies in Puerto Rico NOW, and their sat phone is how Peter has gotten word out from otherwise disconnected islands – donate here to help their on-the-ground efforts.

BVI Abroad – Hurricane Irma: Initiated on Facebook, this group is an excellent resource for BVI updates and has organized a website detailing relief from organizations to donate money (with transparency about fees taken by fundraiser sites), donate supplies, or otherwise get involved. Visit BVI Relief site they set up.

hurricane irma bvi relief

Looking for someone? See Irma Safety Check – https://irmasafetycheck.herokuapp.com/search/ (VI focused) and http://www.bvisafetycheck.com (BVIs only)

Additional sources of information and support welcomed, please add in comments or contact me.

The proximity of Irma, our recent stays in the places now devastated, our deep respect for the force of weather – all brings this event close.

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August

Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

People we care about have lost homes and livelihoods. The search for the unaccounted for by those who were able to evacuate was sharply painful; tears routinely sneaking up. And it’s not just these places mentioned but Barbuda, St Barth, DR, Haiti… has anything been heard about Irma’s impact on Cuba? I have no doubt there is utter devastation in the Bahamas, and probably also in Turks & Caicos, and tomorrow we’ll learn about how Florida has weathered. It is overwhelming. Processing this while knowing fires rage on several fronts near our home waters, friends are affected by Harvey, the freaking big earthquake in Mexico this morning… it’s heavy. We all do a little to pay it forward, to bring a little light into a dark time. Like the stranger who anonymously bought breakfast for our friends evacuating from the Keys, having been an evacuee himself before and wanting to repay the kindness he was shown.

I keep thinking back to our assets in security: time, and mobility. We had significant notice to make a southbound path. We had tiered plans, backups to our backups, unburdened by constraints that prevented others from avoiding Irma. Weather rules our lives, and is compulsively monitored during hurricane season. At the early whiffs of the system forming, there were at least 10 days to add distance—which we did, in a relaxed fashion with stops in Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Martinique. If things happened faster, there were options for a dash.

Southbound on the coast of St Lucia, the 'morning after' Irma

Southbound on the coast of St Lucia, the ‘morning after’ Irma’s VI tear

The tough reality is that most people didn’t have those options, and had other complicating factors: it might have been ties and responsibilities they couldn’t relinquish. It may have been lack of funds. It may have been any one of a number of things outside my reality to imagine. Islanders can’t just drive inland and away (hello, Florida), and as the wreckage amply demonstrates it’s unclear how to find a place that’s safe. Withhold judgment.

As cruisers, the stress / challenge isn’t making our plans and backup plans. It’s around timing decisions. The future size and path of a ‘cane isn’t known as it grows from satellite fluff off the Sahara, but he system’s speed is easier to track, and it’s not fast…moving across an ocean at slower speeds than you need to stay legal driving past an elementary school. From there we can estimate when it’s time to make our move. When we do, it can be decisive: Jamie likened this to a basic collision avoidance strategy used with other boats. Make your move early, and make it clear. At different times this year that may have involved backtracking to the mangroves in Salinas, PR; jetting south to Grenada (check!); ducking southwest to Bonaire. The problem is trying to second guess storm tracks. Until the storm does something decisive, you can’t count anything out. How many times has the predicted track of Irma shifted?

There is a long road ahead for these islands Irma whacked. But among all the hard news, bright spots. Like seeing a post from Andy Schell this morning showing that that our friends Ted & Claudia’s boat/home, Demeter, really truly HAD made it through…moved into an outer-marina berth, even. Finding out that our friends on St John were fine, just cut off from everything in Coral Bay; their home came through, too. They help balance the harder stories: knowing they’re OK. Making it easier to believe we’ll all be OK.

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma

Weather resources for hurricane season

Martinique hurricane shipwreck

pinterest hurricane weather“It’s like you have a bullseye on Totem!” More than one friend has commented along those lines to us recently. It does seem like severe weather systems have pointed directly at Totem a little too frequently. So far, the systems moved or we moved and all’s well. There are probably more weather forecast posts to our Facebook page in the last two months than in the sum total of prior years! That tells you something. The possibility of riding out a storm is one of the big fears and first questions people ask about cruising.

We actually have yet to experience a named storm aboard Totem. That could change soon.

Our primary tactic has been “don’t be there” in a very big picture way, by avoiding the zone of risk for hurricanes during the active season. In the South Pacific, that meant getting to a higher (more southerly) latitude as the season began: we sailed to Australia. In Southeast Asia, like most cruisers we remained equatorial, plus/minus a few degrees; this region is not subject to any cyclones. Crossing the Indian Ocean, we choose a route and timing that worked with the seasons, starting in the northern hemisphere in February (the risk diminishes in December) and arriving in the southern hemisphere by October (cyclones start in December there).

But here in the Caribbean, which doesn’t seem as scary as, say, launching out into the Pacific or Indian Oceans, we have actually placed ourselves at greater risk of severe weather than any time in the last nine years of cruising.

Latest in the series of "here we are near the hurricane" images - this morning's NOAA update

Latest in the series of “here we are near the hurricane” images – this morning’s NOAA update

Tortola, BVIs: car tires, aka hurricane fenders, in the cockpit at Nanny Cay

Tortola, BVIs: car tires, aka hurricane fenders, grace the cockpit of a few boats in Nanny Cay

Only been upon return to North America, where we’ve now been for over a year, has experiencing a hurricane presented a meaningful (probable) risk. For all the well-meaning folks who worry about our exposure to storms at sea, I wonder if knowing that the bigger danger for us is closer to “home” in North America.

NOAA data for monthly incidence of tropical storms and hurricanes. It's peak season NOW.

NOAA data for monthly incidence of tropical storms and hurricanes. It’s peak season NOW.

Staying on top of changes in the weather is always a priority: weather rules our lives. It could be perceived as hubris to be out playing chicken with hurricanes. Against nature, we are the chicken! But WE have resources, truly amazing resources, to help make better decisions. A system forms in the Atlantic, as it did when we were in the BVIs. Our first instinct was to dash south. Taking measure of timing and options lead to a different decision. We stayed put, suffered through 20 knots gusts and almost enough rain rinse the decks.

Here’s a rundown of our go-to resources, and a number of others to check out.

National Hurricane Center / NOAA. NHC is the place to start. They have the resources, the staff, the historical data. They offer depth of tools, from visual snapshots of hurricane advisories to regionalized text forecasts. While we tend to start the day with a look at the Atlantic page, it’s useful for text forecasts.

NOAA Atlantic Tropical Outlook Sept 2

NOAA outlook for this morning – Saturday 2 Sept

PredictWind. Our go-to choice for weather information around the world, not just in the Caribbean. It’s PredictWind’s Offshore app on a laptop that’s currently helping us compare models for the as-yet-unnamed system following Irma; one which sometimes looks to be a bigger risk, depending on the model. It’s very helpful to readily compare four different models (including GFS and ECMWF, and two additional with PredictWind algorithms layered on top) to see how a path is being projected.

It can be significant: below are snapshots of the same time, with Irma’s projected position. Totem’s current location, in Martinique, is the green pin; the red pin is Grenada.We can sail there overnight if necessary. The GFS model (top image) shows nothing following, but European model (bottom) shows a worrisome tag-along-maybe-named-Jose forming.

PredictWind tropical weather

PredictWind gribs showing hurricane

When bigger picture shows a system is brewing, we start looking for details; deeper analysis and information. These sites organize information from a variety of sources and present them in a digestible matter.

Mike’s Weather Page. Mike aggregates a lot of information into a single view. The graphical nature of the page makes it easy to scan to see the latest in model formation and direction. His website name, spaghettimodels.com, reflects the “spaghetti” look from multiple tracks modeled for the path of a weather system – humor always appreciated! OF course, the graphical nature means the website can a little tough to load if you have a sub-par internet connection. Thankfully, we usually have “good enough” internet in the Caribbean… or if we don’t, it’s within close range. His Facebook page often has a good snapshot combining multiple models into one more downloadable graphic, like today’s:

Mike's Weather Page aggregate image sample from 1 September.

Mike’s Weather Page aggregate image sample from 1 September.

Tropical Tidbits. Levi is a graduate meteorology student at Florida State, and shares Atlantic tropical forecast tracks and discussion on his site. If you use Twitter, he offers more prolific and sometimes entertaining commentary—like this two-part tweet yesterday morning:

This made me giggle-snort.

This made me giggle-snort.

It’s nuts how cruisers will spiral into weather analysis. Paying for professional weather information is affordable, smart, and the safest choice you can make when you’re not expert. Relying on the interpretation of the boat next to you isn’t! These two get a nod.

Chris Parker. Justifiably famous in the cruising community, Chris Parker truly understands both the weather AND cruisers. He’s focused on North America/ Atlantic, delivering analysis and guidance over the SSB (free) via newsletter updates (paid). Beyond just weather, he provides weather-based routing services via 1:1 email or text to InReach.

Crown Weather. Rob Lightroom’s service aggregates multi-source information for free on his site, like others listed here; he also offers comprehensive analysis for paying subscribers by email. The summaries of conditions and forecast are impressive, and interesting to read as he shares details that help make your own capabilities better by discussing known behaviors or biases in different models.

We’re not regular subscribers of these—the prior sources are our go-to. But these are the pros we’d recommend, and have had enough exposure to their paid services to appreciate the quality of what they provide, and this summary would feel remiss without a mention.

Meanwhile, here in Martinique, we are busy having a reunion with our good friends: Utopia II last seen in Cape Town, South Africa.

kids SUP beneteau swimming

Sweet reunion with Utopia II

I took a quick poll from other cruising friends in the Caribbean to see what’s useful for them, since everyone gravitates differently.

My friend Carolyn from The Boat Galley has spent many seasons cruising Florida and the Bahamas “in the zone” during hurricane season. Her post on favorite weather apps is a good reference for mobile options and more. Favorites include two I didn’t know, Storm (free), and Hurricane Tracker (paid) – her discussion on those, two others, and why she likes them is an interesting and worthwhile read.

Windy comes up a lot: it’s very pretty, but usually seems to use juuuuust a little bit better bandwidth than beach-bar-quality-wifi provides. Better from the armchair or marina! Several people mentioned Marv’s Weather Service, and the Louisiana Hurricane Center, via Facebook page and www.trackthetropics.com. Friends brought up a couple of sites based on French Antilles islands: I wouldn’t have naturally gravitated to non-English resources but updates on Facebook are conveniently translated automatically! Guadeloupe-based Meteo des Cyclones is quick to post system updates; from Martinique, Météo Tropicale has analysis. Good text forecasts are gold (you’re getting the meteorologist’s interpretation!), and my friend Sue—who is aboard her boat in Puerto Rico—reminded me that the National Weather Service staff in San Juan offer good analysis for PR and the region. (Thank you to Sophie, Wendy, Kimberliegh, Sue and Katia!)

We’re generally spoiled with ‘good enough’ internet service in the Caribbean, but occasionally are limited to our IridiumGO (with SSB/Pactor as backup). Bonniw from Planes, boats and bicycles (SV & RV Odin) has a good post called Tracking Hurricanes that’s all about, well, tracking hurricanes – with a focus on low-bandwidth means. Her Tracking Hurricanes post is both a primer to the approach and a reference to weather products for Caribbean storms to request through Sailmail and Saildocs.

Totem sailboat Martinique

Kids busy playing How Many Teens Can Fit on a SUP? behind Totem

Remember the tweet from Levi near the top of the post? It cracked me up, because of course on Sept. 1 who knows which football team will make the playoffs! And of course a hurricane track which looks awfully convincing when splashed out in deep angry colors on a forecast is tempting to internalize as gospel. But there is one sure thing about the weather: it will change. Even now, what’s looming with Irma varies depending on still-disagreeing models. Expressions of concern are appreciated, truly. So is faith that just because we don’t immediately run from our current position means that we’re stuck in the known path of a major storm: we’re not.

Weather decisions are made cautiously and conservatively, and staying stationary doesn’t mean we’re gambling. It would be safer for us to be in Panama, or back in Saint Helena. Be assured though, this chicken likes to cross the road without risk of getting flattened. Imperfect, and amazingly insightful weather forecasts provided by meteorologist geeks get taken for granted. To the meteorologists and weather geeks of the world, we thank you for showing us when to cross the road.

Sunset Martinique sailboat

Sunset from St Anne, Martinique

Cruising from the Greater to Lesser Antilles

 

Drone view of Culebra

Figuring out the names of Caribbean islands was as daunting as learning island groups of the South Pacific. First, there’s a whole lot of them! Pinterest Caribbean geograhy 101And then, where does one country end and the next begin? And could I please have a Venn diagram that shows regions and island groups and countries? At least most Caribbean place names have intuitive pronunciation for English speakers (first guesses at cruiser destinations like Kiribati, Papeete, Whangarei, Nadi, Pago Pago, etc. are usually not correct). Cruiser cred points for anyone who can correctly spell these phonetically in the comments!

Quick geography tangent: Antilles is a general term that refers to ALL Caribbean islands, based on the legend of a phantom island—Antillia—that a 15th century Italian-born historian placed in the Atlantic, far to the west from Europe. As boats sailed from Europe to the Americas and the region became better mapped, Antillia gradually disappeared but the general reference for islands to the far west remained.

“Antilles” is less frequently heard than the subset as they are divided into—Greater and Lesser—which are conveniently grouped geographically: Greater Antilles being larger islands to the north (Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica), and Lesser Antilles being the smaller balance scattered to the east and south. The Lesser Antilles are further divided into windward and leeward islands, which include French Antilles and Dutch Antilles, and then there’s the Lucayan archipelago, didja know the ABCs are an island group not just an alphabet, and… right, too easy to get confused!

Most of our travel through the Greater Antilles was a tease of changing plans as we sought safer waters for hurricane season. We may regret postponing a visit to Cuba, as it is increasingly difficult for a US-flagged boat to access. Passing over Hispaniola I truly regret, and acknowledge the crew of Uma for their generous, speedy, thoughtful, and realistic guidance for visiting Haiti. Where armchair sailors who have no Haitian experience pronounced our certain death if we visited, Kika was a voice of reason: sharing contacts from their months in Haiti, annotating maps, suggesting anchorages. Anchorages we looked forward to visiting, until an unexpected weather window for quicker easting opened. And with that window, we skipped across both Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which together comprise Hispaniola) with one lone (but very memorable) stop. Puerto Rico would be similarly abbreviated if it hadn’t been for the matter of urgent health care. When we moved east again, expected to fast track the remaining necessary stops until Grenada. Anyone who knows our speed is laughing right now…we don’t “fast track” anything very well!

Expecting to skip through Puerto Rico’s eastern island of Culebra as just a pit stop, weather dictated otherwise. With the excellent hurricane hole in Salinas a day sail behind it was worth watching to see what the latest wave from Africa would do.

At left, the "spaghetti model" for the low which eventually became hurricane Gert

At left, the “spaghetti model” for the low which eventually became hurricane Gert; at right, the NOAA outlook about a week and a half later

Weather system 99L eventually became hurricane Gert, happily stayed away, but the active picture illustrates reasons behind the frequent pauses…also known as the wonderful opportunity to spend time with people previously known through the interwebs. Sophie and family, who our kids played endless rounds of jump-off-the-bow-swim-back-climb-aboard-repeat.

kids jumping off sailboat

Long awaited was meeting with Sue and Rick of Orion. Sue and I have been corresponding for quite a few years. You can see the solemnity of the occasion when we finally met up.

meetup with Sue and Rick

Anchored more than a week next to Orion in the Dakity bay corner of Ensenada Honda, they shared “their” Culebra. Long time Puerto Rico residents, they know this area intimately and it was a privilege to experience it with their guidance—from visiting a small museum to exploring on the island.

Sunset behind Totem...

Sunset behind Totem…

 

...sunrise in front of Orion.

…sunrise in front of Orion.

Walking in Culebra with Sue & Rick

Walking in Culebra with Sue & Rick

girls and cactus

Coaching clients taking a few weeks on their Dean 44 catamaran joined in. This turned into several fun nights of sundowners (and beyond: would that be moonrisers?), playing at the beautiful little island of Culebrita, and some of the best tacos I’ve had in years. For all those memories, somehow I only ended up with pictures of the tacos… and a cucumber-jalapeno margarita, which was even better than you think. Mimzy crew, that was a lot of fun – we’d like a repeat in the South Pacific!

 

pork belly, beef tongue, and a truly spicy margarita

pork belly, beef tongue, and a truly spicy margarita

After a schedule centered around doctors’ appointments it was nice to fall back into a more normal family routine. Setting up dinner in the solar oven. Cribbage in the cockpit when the afternoon cools off. Jamie and I were on swimming restriction while our stitches healed, but the kids weren’t, and drawing them to the reef for a closer peek was Miss Dakity. That’s the name Sue gave a young flamingo that blew into Culebra earlier in the year and seems to have set up (solo) shop. Fuzzy pic… attempting with a zoom lens from simply way too far away, from a moving platform!

7c setting up dinner cribbage in the cockpit 7a kids swim out 7b Miss Dakity

The unplanned month in Puerto Rico was more pleasant than anticipated, medical stuff notwithstanding. More than that, it zoomed PR way up on the list of “places we could see living someday.” There is a vibe that I’m not sure how to describe: maybe it’s why year after year, Puerto Ricans are listed on a long-term study by the University of Michigan as among the happiest people in the world. There is a friendliness here that’s well over the bar of most. The gregariousness of “Puerto Rican Navy” (affectionate name for weekend powerboaters) dancing on the beach in Culebrita (and leaving no sign of their presence behind). The warmth and care and HOUSECALL by Dr Villa. The smile that greeted meager Spanish, helpful instead of patronizing. Even if it weren’t for the beautiful landscape and history to soak in, we’d be sold.

_DSC8570 5e birds in town _DSC8587

_DSC8377_DSC8338

 

 

 

Facing up to health care

_DSC8029

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.

IMG_20170708_140310463

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.

_DSC8842

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

boy on radio
“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.

sailing watching coast through binoculars

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

_DSC6760

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.

_DSC7869

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.

_DSC7783

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.

_DSC7790

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.

_DSC7792

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

_DSC7854

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!