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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Beautiful everyday Bahamas

sailboat in clear blue water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

beach days

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

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

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

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

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

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Archetypical Bahamas, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sailboat 50 50 underwater photo Bahamas clear blue water

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

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

5- vessel relics hang over the potluck buffet

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

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Us-ie with Selah and Ruby Rose

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

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Speeding their way to hang out with other teens on Allegro

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

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Teen conversation circle on the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Offshore Communications: Satellite or SSB?

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Cruisers anchored off a small beach in the Exumas dinghy in for cocktails and chat while the sun sinks behind a distant cay. Most evenings in this idyllic spot new cruisers and old salts alike meet over plans to go fishing in the sound, the best time to avoid day-trippers in the Thunderball grotto, when the mail/grocery ship is due in this week, or just talk story.

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

We picked this location for the kids and I to hang out while Jamie was away based on the trifecta of people, provisions, and connectivity. Well, theoretical connectivity. We have line of sight to the Staniel Cay cell tower, but it’s been so dysfunctional I used our IridiumGO to load offshore GRIBs via PredictWind three out of the last four days!

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Weather conditions warrant monitoring, like the volatility that set up this little weather bomb a couple of days ago; I do not want to skip a day because I couldn’t connect.

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At beach sundowners the other night, one of the new cruisers commented that he “needed an SSB before cruising farther.” Thinking how I’d been using our Iridium in our near-shore location this week, it prompted me to ask why he expected to add radio and not satellite comms on board. Totem has both, but if we were starting from scratch, we’d pick IridiumGO over the SSB: no question. He seemed genuinely surprised by this, and unfamiliar with the pros/cons and trends in the cruising community. These are reasons I see for the shift (and our preference).pinterest satellite or ssb

With the Iridium, we can update weather any time—offshore, or in the shadow of an uncooperative Bahamian cell tower. With our SSB, it depends on the timing for good propagation , which is generally two windows per day. Even then, it may still be tricky: I tried, but couldn’t hear all of Chris Parker’s forecast yesterday morning. To download a weather product requires a good connection to a land-based station for the internet handshake. Is “any time” such a big deal? I think so.

Setup costs for an SSB run $4-5,000 for radio, tuner, grounding, cables, and pactor modem with DIY installation. An IridiumGO with the couple of extras (an external antenna and quality cable—PredictWind bundles this, and it’s worth every penny) is only about $1,200.

There are ongoing costs, and radio users will tell you theirs is $0, but most cruisers still subscribe to Sailmail (annual fee). It’s cheaper than satellite airtime, but that’s coming down. When you buy an Iridium GO kit from PredictWind, the airtime service partner is SatPhoneStore. We continue to get our airtime from them today: unlike others, you’re not locked in a lengthy contract and it’s possible to change service levels from one month to the next to help contain costs (pay as you go, “unlimited data”, different levels of talk time, etc.). Manage it well, and it’s reasonable to have years of use from an IridiumGO before it exceeds the cost of an SSB kit. Seeing signs of coming volatility in the forecast: priceless. (SatPhoneStore has a discount for Totem readers: skip to bottom of the post for details!)

European model rain wind forecast

Getting a radio install right is a topic of extensive discussion that I won’t touch except to say—it can be complicated. Installing a satellite is only complicated by the fact that getting the cable to the external antenna may feel like wrestling an uncooperative python. Ask Jamie how he feels about this.

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What’s also not complicated about a satellite device vs. radio setup? Using it! Whether that means it gets used more often, or better, this translates to SAFETY. Easier to understand, easier to use, more familiar mode of communication, arcane knowledge not required.

Radio nets were heralded for building cruiser community and providing a safety net. Their ability for 1:many reach (vs satellite’s 1:1) helps. I value the radio conversations with boats in loose company on a passage and in remote areas, but there are fewer voices now. A family who has crossed the Atlantic a several times over the last five years noted the trend: “it was quiet this last trip.” The overwhelming majority of Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) boats do not use HF radio. We had our radio sked with other cruisers, and texted with boats that used sat systems.

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Looking right…

The Garmin InReach offers an interesting, affordable alternative for getting weather and sending position updates from offshore. Back in Florida, we had a great visit with Dave & Carolyn (“The Boat Galley”) Shearlock. Previously SSB users, I knew they relied on a Garmin InReach for much of their Caribbean cruising, and asked her to give me a demo. Paired with a smartphone to improve the user interface, it is an affordable alternative for weather and texting—weather routers like Chris Parker can fit weather updates into the text limitations to send subscribers their customized route guidance. Read more about InReach on her informative site.

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Carolyn demonstrates the InReach on her linked smartphone

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…and left. Even the wide angle couldn’t fit it all in!

Discussion and marketing materials tout value all of the above options for offshore comms in an emergency (although that’s fading with HF, because you need people to be out there listening if you want to be heard), but none is a substitute for having an EPIRB on board. In fact: we have TWO on Totem—and recently added a PLB as well! Our older EPIRB is installed on the bulkhead, and a new ACR unit is in the ditch kit.

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Mairen reads off the UID to register our new EPIRB from ACR. 10 year battery!

To be clear, Jamie and I have amateur radio licenses and Totem has always had a marine SSB. I used to fall solidly in the “HF is best” camp, but after two oceans / 2.5 years with the Iridium it’s a no-brainer. Here in the Exumas, the mail/grocery boat may not have shown up this last week (Bahamian national elections interrupting service) and the internet may be mostly down, but pretty Big Majors has delivered with people, and I’m doing just fine staying on top of weather without ‘normal’ internet.

I’m a fan of SatPhoneStore service and asked if they’d consider passing a discount to readers, and they said yes! Now through July 31, use SAILINGTOTEM in their shopping cart for 5% off your order. Our IridiumGo airtime is through SPS; they carry the full spectrum of satellite devices from a handheld InReach tracker to KVH domes for the truly bandwidth addicted.

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Finding Confidence Cruising

another postcard

It’s a long journey from the midwestern shore where a kid uncertainly pushed her Sunfish out into the lake, to this beautiful beach of powdery sand and turquoise water in the Bahamas.

Back then I wondered if I’d later be able to steer the boat back to point where I launched. Today I find satisfaction in knowing that I am both capable handling Totem and also have a tremendous amount to improve. Getting to that place of confidence in fundamental capabilities relieves stress and quells fears; knowing that there remain endless opportunities to learn is a joy of cruising.

San Francisco, 1970. No skills yet, but togged in a sweet sailor dress

San Francisco, 1970. No skills yet, but togged in a sweet sailor dress

pinterest confidenceIt is a journey to find that confidence. Looking back over some decades at that uncertain teen on a Michigan beach, there isn’t any single turning point but a progression of experiences that describe it.

It helped, and it didn’t, that my partner in this adventure is an accomplished sailor. Jamie has been on boats since he could walk and raced at a professional level. On one hand, his skill gave me the space to grow my own capabilities without shouldering the responsibility of ownership for our safety. On the other hand, it makes it easy to cede responsibility to him instead of tackling things I should learn. And hten, it can sometimes be tricky to learn from those you are closest to!

The antidote for insecurity is knowledge and experience, but the best way to acquire them varies: it depends on how you learn and what your opportunities are.

Time on the water

When Jamie and I work with coaching clients who need to build skills, one of the first tactics we suggest is to get involved in casual racing on a smaller boat. It typically costs nothing more than time, and will surround a learner the proper terms while drilling in tasks that make a better cruising sailor. Small-boat sailing is also an excellent way to internalize the fundamentals of bigger-boat handling; and the afternoons I spent learning how to steer that Sunfish with my foot from a prone position (the better to ponder life… or work on my tan) were better training than I allowed myself credit for at the time. Racing dinghies in college later steeped me in terminology, rigging basics, efficiently routing from A to B, internalizing that flat is fast and the telltale dance that is good trim. I’m not exactly a cutthroat competitor (anyone who knows me well is giggling right now), but this transition from lazy day sailing to team competition ignited my passion for sailing in unanticipated ways.

Celebrating Siobhan's birthday in Staniel Cay this week, with ice cream at the dock

Celebrating Siobhan’s birthday in Staniel Cay this week, with ice cream at the dock

Judgement-free learning

Among the best preparation in my path was a week-plus of sail training with an all-woman crew cruising the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea. We studied, discussed, and practiced everything from rules of the road to sail selection to self-steering, radar use, docking, anchoring, and more as needed – it was as if we had embarked on a cruising journey already. In an open learning environment, I was gently guided, allowed to make (and learn from) mistakes, and ask as many questions as I wanted without feeling any of them might be ‘dumb.’ My experience was with two-time circumnavigator Nancy Erley of Tethys Offshore in the Pacific Northwest; chief among other programs I’d reach for is the east-coast-based Morse Alpha Expeditions led by Ben & Teresa Carey.

Another kind of confidence: shark selfies?!

Another kind of confidence: shark selfies?! Our anchorage companion this week

A good book

Kinesthetic learning is essential, and some studying can’t be avoided. One of the best ‘books’ in my journey isn’t in any store. Before we started cruising on Totem, we had a 35’ Hallberg Rassy—Mau Ke Mana—as our training wheels for cruising skills in Puget Sound. Like too many Americans we crammed our summer holiday in a few long weekends and a stolen getaway week. To extend our range afloat, we made an arrangement with trusted friends: we’d sail the boat north up through the San Juans and to the Canadian Gulf Islands and expend all our vacation days in one direction; they’d drive up to meet us, we’d trade vehicles, and they’d sail down for their summer escape while we hustled south in the car to jobs and daycare. Every boat has idiosyncrasies, and boats set up for cruising have more complex systems than the typical daysailer. To help our friends take over Mau Ke Mana, Jamie created “The Boat Book” as an orientation to her quirks and equipment—a mix of how-to and maintenance schedule in one. I was the unexpected beneficiary, as this basic orientation guided my initial learning process in cruising systems stepped through the particular equipment and oddities of our boat.

Sharing sundowner snacks with curious birds

Sharing sundowner snacks with curious birds

For more readily available material to purchase, there’s not a prettier or simpler way to learn the basics of sailing than Jan Adkins’ Craft of Sail (thank you to Teresa & Ben for reminding me of this beautiful book: I was given a copy years ago and the pages were well thumbed). Another is Chapman’s Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling: I’ve never quite gotten over the fact that a family friend, who I’d been sailing with many times, passed me over and gifted a copy to my younger brother (uninterested in sailing, but The Boy) years ago. Our edition stems from Jamie’s teen years, but is perfectly applicable today. If it’s resources to plan cruising you’re after, there is none better than Beth Leonard’s The Voyager’s Handbook. For more ideas, we’ve curated a list of recommended reading in a number of categories.

Racing, training, reading: ultimately it’s whatever works for you to learn. Situations that facilitate learning for some may inhibit learning for others. All-women’s courses were a gift for me, as was racing. Sailing schools, passage, training, there are a myriad of options.

What does it take to gain confidence?

How long is a piece of string? While was confidence in my sailing skills I was after initially, it was the freedom of sailing that has brought a greater confidence to my person.

Sea trial for Totem's purchase; San Francisco Bay, 2007

Sea trial for Totem’s purchase; San Francisco Bay, 2007, with Jim Jessie

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to spend two days with a room full of women who plan to go cruising. They’d signed up for the 2-day Cruising Women seminars I delivered with Pam Wall as part of “Cruisers U” at the Annapolis Boat Show. Talking through their reasons for participating, I saw myself in so many stories and faces: I remember what it was like getting ready for this massive change in our lives. Excitement about the future, but trepidation about the realities. My mind too once swirled with what-if worries, uncertainty about my own capabilities, and wondering if we’d be able to pull it off.

In truth, I’ve failed to appreciate when this confidence settled in, but on the heels of Cruising Women I’ve had another opportunity to appreciate that strength week. Jamie’s not on Totem right now, an unusual scenario.

on the tarmac

He’s flying to a few Caribbean ports to give practical evaluations for coaching clients to boats they have under contract. So for at least a week and a half, it’s just me and the kids, keeping up with… well, everything.

Beautiful islands below

None of it is a big deal: just keeping up with everyday life on board, but it made me realize how much I count on his relative depth of experience in arenas where I’m not used to flying solo, whether managing voltage on board in the delicate dance to balance incoming power with draws from the watermaker and refrigeration and screens. Moving Totem to anchor in a new spot based on our needs. Staying mindful of the weather forecast and what it may hold: if we’ll be fine in this pretty curve of bay, or need to move for shelter from a shifting breeze. And it’s fine. I’m fine. When did this happen? I can’t say, but wouldn’t recognize this in myself even just a few years ago.

Heading back to Totem after an ice cream / garbage run to "town."

Heading back to Totem after an ice cream / garbage run to “town.”

In the subtle gilt trim of the Naval Academy conference room in Annapolis, I wanted every woman in the seminar to internalize that she too has this confidence and capability entirely in her reach, but how to fit that into words? So Pam and I gave our best effort to shed light into dark spaces where niggling worries fester and scare them off. Offered points to follow and place to seek information and resources. Provided tangible skills in basic knots, coiling and heaving a line. Reinforced that physical size or strength is not a detriment: it is simply an issue to address mechanical advantage. And ultimately, I hope, communicated through personal experience that it’s possible to go from that person who wondered if she’d get her little 14’ dinghy back again into an adventurous cruiser with undreamed of stories to tell.

Late 1980s - in front of the family cottage in Pointe aux Barques, Michigan

Late 1980s, Pointe aux Barques, Michigan

Precious provisions: planning for scarcity and economy

1 dinner in the cockpit

_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!

2 GHC grocery again

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!