Bonaire’s underwater wonderland

Mairen freediving

Tucked low in the Caribbean sea, a skip above Venezuela but hundreds of miles from the popular cruising grounds of the lesser Antilles, the ABC islands are a touch out of the way for the broader fleet. ABC stands for Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao. If you’re like me, all you have to do is hear “Aruba” to start humming the tune to Kokomo: “Aruba, Jamaica, oooo I want to take ya!” – amiright?!

We stopped at Bonaire for one of the two reasons most people do: because they’re on the way to somewhere else. Namely, they’re a great way to break up the distance from the Antilles to Panama.

Bonaire location

Not a great selling point, but the other reason most people go to Bonaire makes it a lock: it is reputed to have among the best diving in the Caribbean. If diving was a top priority for Totem, we’d have routed differently in the Caribbean (namely, getting into the Western Carib). But it’s certainly why we prioritized a stop in B over A (“Las Vegas of the Caribbean”) and C (touristy + poor swimming), and it delivered.

Check out the number of dive sites on this map: Bonaire is basically one massive dive site.

Bonaire dive site Map

Pinterest underwater wonderlandAlthough it’s just a few miles long, there are more than EIGHTY named, shore-accessible dive sites. They are marked by yellow buoys in the water, and yellow rocks on shore. This entire shoreline, out to 200’ (61m) depth is a national marine park! Smart move: Bonaire’s economy rests on tourism, much of it destination diving.

How does this impact us as cruisers? The first sign is upon arrival, because your only option is 1) mooring or 2) marina. There is no anchoring allowed, which protects coral that might otherwise be destroyed by chain/anchors. Moorings are a reasonable $10/day. Visitors are required to purchase permits for snorkeling or diving: the tag is affixed to your gear. They’re also reasonable (I think it was $10 for snorkeling, $25 to dive), valid for a year, and support funding the funding marine park.

Diving and swimming was far and away our number one activity, and our planned stay of “a week or so” slipped into nearly three. The weather wasn’t right to move on, but even if our window opened the unanimous vote was to extend our stay for more swimming in the beautiful water of Bonaire.

Totem nestled between Utopia II and Rhapsody; kids swam daily between Totem and Utopia, and I enjoyed an extended swim each morning with Bob & Sarah from Rhapsody. Totem’s aft deck was frequently scattered with gear awaiting use or drying off after a freshwater rinse, a pileup of masks and fins and tanks and snorkels and more. At least there wasn’t much laundry, we spent to much time in swimsuits!

DCIM111GOPROGOPR6242.JPG

This aft deck taken over by gear

The water was clear and beautiful for nearly the duration of our stay. Totem floats in about 20 feet of water; a coral heads dot the sand below, and tumble in increasing density down the dropoff just behind the transom. It’s startling to see such vibrant coral in an anchorage.

Totem floats over the reef

Totem floats over the reef

anchorage- corals

 

The kids had a blast. Sometimes they cared about what was down there to scope out (an eel! a ray!), a lot of the time they were just “hanging out,” enjoying each others company in the bathwater ocean.

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Just hanging out

Just hanging out

Swimming every morning with the Rhapsody crew was a great way to start the day. Good exercise, good company, good marine life spotting. We’d alternate between stroking to make some distance and get heart rates up and OH LOOK SOMETHING SHINY! There is always something to see: most days included a lot of flounder, some eels, and colorful schools of fish (the reef in front of the Venezuelan embassy never disappointed). Octopuses stick with a den for a while, so I could revisit one repeatedly, like a comforting resident neighbor. One morning we saw three different spotted eagle rays, cruising the waterfront and looking for a snack in the sand.

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

Another well-disguised critter... can you see it?

Another well-disguised critter… can you see it?

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Always lots of fish at the turnaround point under Karel's waterfront bar

Always lots of fish at the turnaround point under Karel’s waterfront bar

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Stopping at Windancer IV for a chat on the way back to our boats

Did we dive? You bet! Niall had a mega-big Christmas gift early: for as long as we’ve lived on Totem, he wanted dive certification. With help from a cruiser friend, Brita, who was getting her dive master training in Bonaire — arrangements were made ahead of our arrival with an excellent instructor at Dive Friends Bonaire, and he started PADI classes on our first full day. Big thank you to Brita (who, small world, worked at the same law firm as my cousin in NYC?!) and fair winds as she chases more sailing adventures! Jamie and I love diving too: Utopia II is generous with us, letting us join their expeditions and use their gear as they have everywhere from Malaysia to Maldives. I lost count of the number of dives we did, and it was glorious. Totem’s underwater cameras are only suitable up to about 30′, so I don’t have any photos from our dives — but these images from Rhapsody capture the vibe of the reef.

forest of soft corals fans Black Durgon in the deep blue

Pretty corals and critters under Totem presented a great opportunity to work on dive lessons and experience with Niall’s sisters. Our Mantus tanks are perfect for this.

Jamie (barely visible hand!) helps Siobhan check her gear, somewhere not far under Totem

Jamie (barely visible hand!) helps Siobhan check her gear, somewhere not far under Totem

Does Bonaire’s diving earn the reputation? Mostly. Zillions of colorful little fish? Yes! Healthy corals, in a diversity of forms and a spectrum of hues? Yes! But it is clear that this area is over-fished. There were no top level predators save man. No sharks ghosting over a sandy bottom. No big groupers lurking in the nook of a coral head. It was beautiful, it’s just not as awesome and healthy a reef as it could be. It’s still probably among the best in the Caribbean. I fear for the future, since the marine park status hasn’t staved off overfishing. There were guys fishing a couple of boat lengths behind Totem’s mooring most mornings. Maybe that was about the 200’ depth mark where the park starts, but it seemed shy. On the edge at least, for fish we couldn’t even buy from the fisherman’s dock because they pre-sold their catch to the massive cruise ships that visited nearly every day we were there.

It was still incredible. It still pulled us in. I’d happily go back. I’d choose it over Grenada for hurricane season in a heartbeat. Why? More of what’s to love about Bonaire in the next post.

Totem is in Colombia now, reveling in the sights and sounds and tastes of this spirited country.

Dissecting a passage: Bonaire to Colombia

sailboat and helicopter

Pinterest passage to ColombiaThis dreaded passage unleashed one true horror. It was not a failure in rigging or other key systems. It was not the feared washing machine sea state. No, it was the ugly reality of unclogging a toilet while sailing at 9+ knots!

That awful job aside, almost everything else on the passage went very smoothly. Weather variance remained on the pleasant side of the forecast, and factors less easily predicted (namely, katabatic winds) were mild. Totem flew along, averaging over 200 miles per day towards landfall in a little over two days. About the most eventful thing that happened was when we were circled a few times by a very curious and official looking helicopter about 7 miles west of Bonaire… as photographed buzzing Utopia, above.

What did we do well?

  1. Careful planning, which included a lot more than just a route plan and the right weather window
  2. Patience to wait for good weather!
  3. Adapting the plan to suit conditions
  4. Anticipating sail handling at night or in rough conditions
  5. Remembering local effects

What could we have done better?

  1. Fish.

OK, so we did the fishing thing exceptionally poorly by not actually putting any lines out (truth be told). We were going kinda fast for mahi, which I’d have guessed our catch, as we have miserable luck with tuna. On the other hand, Utopia DID catch a tuna: and this is all that was left when they reeled it in… ripped out from the gills back. Oh, that would have been some spectacular sashimi!
tuna fish head shark bait

Really though, it was great!

The longer route we planned ran about 416 nautical miles from Bonaire’s mooring field in Kralendijk to the Marina Santa Marta in Colombia. Meals were prepped ahead, just in case… it was nice to just heat & eat. Smooth conditions made a lot of reading time… and time to catch shooting stars on night watch, under clear skies. Shooting stars filled my night watch once the waxing moon set and a carpet overhead shone with a brilliance you can only get from the open ocean’s absence of light pollution. As the tall Sierra Nevada range came into view, a gust of wind brought the rich humus smell of landfall with an intensity I’ve rarely felt after a week at sea, much less a couple of days, a hint of the lushness that awaits.

We have the highly unusual tendency to pace very closely to Utopia II on passages. It’s close enough that we actually have to be kind of careful – when you’re in the ocean, two boatlengths is at least a dozen boatlengths too close for comfort, especially at night! Adjusting course to avoid an unwanted encounter with our buddy boat… that’s a first.

Vessel traffic was minimal, but enough to require a close eye on the radar and AIS. Both proved useful when a ship loomed on a course for direct collision that closed remarkably quickly based on boat speeds and the face we were headed directly at each other. Whatever you want to say about the “rules” of the road, mass wins every time; I appreciate the mate of the 117 meter long tanker who altered course to pad our nearest distance with a comfortable mile of separation.

Hindsight, and changes from the plan

The crew of Rhapsody snapped us departing Bonaire the morning of the 26th. (Turns out that means we missed Second Christmas in Bonaire – which is a THING!).

I am REALLY going to miss my morning swims with Sarah & Bob from Rhapsody!

I am REALLY going to miss my morning swims with Sarah & Bob from Rhapsody!

Jamie wrote this summary below on what shifted from our original plan (see the Passage Planning blog post for details), a follow up to the exercise we posed for coaching clients. Pardon the wobbly mouse illustrations annotating this OpenCPN screenshot to help illustrate.

Routing #3, pic5

1. Route change

Based on anecdotal info about sea state, I tweaked original plans and set the route to 50 miles offshore instead of 40. Note the thin line that more or less parallels the blue portion of the chart. The line marks the 1000 meter (330 feet) depth contour – outside is 2000 – 3000 meters, this is the continental shelf where significant depth change can contribute to further sea state unpleasantness as water piles up.

2. Conditions

a. Wind: consistently ENE. I expected a slight change to E, but didn’t happen.

b. Ocean current: the Caribbean current was strong, as expected, and very much in align with forecast position.

c. Waves: by reputation, waves were going to define this passage. There were six distinct phases:

  1. Bonaire to north end of Curacao waves were normal wind driven waves up to 2 meters.
  2. From north end of Curacao to the northernmost point of continental shelf was SLOPPY! Why? Wind from NNE makes wind waves from the same direction. Strong current is perpendicular to wind waves AND causing bunched up water from islands in the way and huge depth change. This made for 100 miles of confused seas from multiple directions. Fortunately, we were there in good conditions with a full 24 hours since stronger winds and bigger waves – so it was lumpy but manageable.
  3. Once north of the continental shelf, waves became patterned and regular wind waves again. A route over the continental shelf (close to shore) would be miserable!
  4. Because sea state was fine, you can see that we cut the gybe corner a little to reduce sailing distance. Good sea state continued after the gybe, so we continued to shave more distance (remaining inside of the planned route).
  5. We had delightful conditions, wind and waves, all the way to the cape, just 4 miles from destination. I’ll talk about that below.
We use PredictWind to see how weather shifts may impact our route plan along the way. Even on shorter passages like this, conditions change and bear monitoring.

Updating route plan on PredictWind while underway: even on shorter passages like this, forecasts change and bear monitoring.

3. Sailing

a. Leg 1 was 220NM on starboard tack, beam reaching. Very fast sailing and more so with current push. We did 208NM in the first 24 hours.

b. Knowing there was a gybe coming, I tweaked the route some to set timing of gybe to be in daylight. We reached the gybe point at 8AM, furled headsail, eased the preventer, gybed in 20 knots of wind with single reef in the main. Easy.

c. With turn to SW, was clear the sailing angle close to dead-downwind (DDW). So we set up for wind-n-wing. Boom out to starboard with preventer on and single reef; genoa poled out to port.

d. We thought wind would shift to E and we would have to take pole down to be fully on port tack, but the shift didn’t really happen – there was a little change but we managed wind-and-wing just fine with wind angle at 150 degrees (30 degrees from DDW, wind over port side).

e. At about 50 miles to destination, course shifted further S requiring pole down and gybing the genoa to the starboard side. Likely this would happen in the dark, so before sunset, I checked all lines to be sure this would go smoothly (OK, I always check them anyway!). This change happened about 4AM and went easily.

f. At 40 miles out, wind was 20 to 25 so put in second reef.

4. Hello, cape!

Route plan, good weather window forecast, and actual weather was as predicted made this an easy and fast passage. It wasn’t all perfect sailing along at 8.5, surfing to 12 knots sailing–although that describes a lot of the passage! But there was also a cape to go around. Always, always, ALWAYS, expect enhanced conditions at a cape.

Routing #3, pic6

Approaching the cape just after sunrise was perfect timing for visibility. Land here is mountainous–the Sierra Nevada range here, part of the Colombian Andes, is one of the tallest coastal ranges in the world. Conditions were a wall of gray overland, with a pronounced dark gray band extending to the west, with rain below it. No other visible signs of wind or sea state build at the cape, but to repeat, ALWAYS EXPECT ENHANCED CONDITIONS AT A CAPE!! Totem already had two reefs in the main, but I thought it prudent to partially furl the headsail as well. Turns out, this was a good idea!!! How it played out, and what we did:

a. Wind built from low 20s up to 35 – 42 knots. This is not GRIB predicted effect, rather, compression induced wind build because of mountainous land. [If you remember one thing: GRIBs are not Gospel! There can be more dynamics at play in determining wind force.]

b. Wind waves of two meters towards the WSW, also compressed around the cape and bent around to be perpendicular to the land. And they GREW, both confused and bigger, much bigger.

c. From cape to destination was four miles. For two miles, the waves doubled to four meters with four waves of at least five meters, from dead astern. All waves are not created equally. A five meter swell (dying wave) is gentle. These were waves (building, living) and very aggressive. Even though five meters isn’t a huge wave, it’s plenty big enough for catastrophe.

d. Things can happen very quickly when going down the face (front) of waves driven by strong wind such as these. The very real risk is broaching – getting knocked onto your side, beam to the waves. The boat doesn’t want to go straight down the waves; it wants to peel off one way or the other (water friction and balance of sailplan). Steering well is paramount to managing these conditions. Our autopilot was doing OK, but I felt better boosting its turning speed with hands on the wheel. Totem has a big rudder, so bites in nicely. It was a very exciting (hairy) couple of miles before seas eased to three meters and then two meters on approach to Santa Marta.

Hindsight

Once in Santa Marta, several cruisers came by that chat. Common theme: what a great weather window we had! The past several weeks it’s been blowing 35-40 knots, and gusts have reached up to 60 making conditions outside hellish. On one hand, we played it well. But on the other, a lot of what’s felt in the marina we presume to be katabatic winds – not so predictable for anticipating a weather window. Partly lucky, partly smart, glad to be on the other side of this particular stretch of water.

* * *

The first taste of Colombia yesterday is sweet: friendly staff welcoming us into Marina Santa Marta. In town, colonial buildings with faded elegance and colorful street art. Pedestrian malls lined with restaurants spilling out into streetside tables with busy conversations and delicious aromas. But more about that later – I’ll leave you with a few images from passage.

Sailing into the sunset again: this had such great green flash potential!

Sailing into the sunset again: this had such great green flash potential!

Utopia in the distance at dawn, day two

Utopia in the distance at dawn, day two

Jamie at the helm as we get past the cape - seas NEVER look as big on camera...

Jamie tethered in at the helm as we get past the cape, while I hide under the dodger – seas NEVER look as big on camera…

Hello, Santa Marta!

Hello, Santa Marta!

Planning a passage: Bonaire to Colombia

sailing trimming the main

There is a good chance our upcoming passage will suck. Yay…

How do we know it’s not a simple downwind run in the trades? Enough friends, cruisers with miles, have told us how uncomfortable the stretch across the top of South America to give credence to the oft-repeated quote that this is one of the “five worst passages.” That quote is never sourced (if anyone knows a legit data source, please add in comments or contact me!) but experiences show there’s more to it than hyperbole.

How are we going to mitigate the misery? Jamie’s outlined our planning process as an exercise for the people working with us as cruising coaches. A summary of planning factors are and shared via email and our coaching Facebook group. We’ve helped as coaches with information on identifying tools to use, sources to check, questions to ask for developing a plan, as well as fleshed out details that make up the dynamics of this route. The exercise is broken into parts over a few days to facilitate discussion on different aspects in the safe space of the closed group, where there are no dumb questions or tridents thrown by Salty McSaltypants. What follows is pared back version of this exercise-turned-teaching-tool.

Passage Planning Basics

Totem lies in Bonaire over a pretty coral reef, safely secured to a mooring. Next stop: Santa Marta, Colombia! This is the planned route:

The route: Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia

The route: Bonaire to Santa Marta, Colombia

YOUR TASK:

  1. Assess passage for risks
  2. Learn historical conditions AND track current conditions
  3. Develop a safe, efficient route
  4. Identify the weather window to depart in
  5. identify BAILOUT options, should an issue require getting into port sooner
  6. Know destination clearance processes
  7. Prepare a float plan, if passage complexity necessitates it

At this point, coaching clients are asked to think about what they’d do: to pretend it’s their own passage. Identify tools, research conditions, create a plan, and especially: ask questions! They can document for feedback, discuss on our coaching Facebook group, or just let it sink in as future fodder. Below are the top notes of information shared back with them.

1 – Assess risks

Every passage has them; these are particular to our transit from Bonaire and Colombia. The purpose is to break them down and think about how they impact planning.

Dangerous waves: Comfort underway is all about the sea state. Three factors set up risk here: 1) a long fetch creating bigger waves, 2) deep water bunching at the continental shelf, and 3) strong katabatic winds.

Shipping: This is the highway to/from Panama Canal. The radar and AIS will get a lot of use watching out for traffic!

Debris in Water: River outflows send floating mats of weed and large deadheads; it’s also the leeward end of Caribbean Sea. Risk of hitting debris is higher, especially closer to the coast.

Security: Colombia and Venezuela present security risks of different dynamics, with aggressive incidents at sea and coastally.

2 – Historical weather and current conditions

Historical weather first! It trends in three-month periods, alternating between rough and calm conditions. December to February has rough conditions – lucky us! (It’s a choice. It’s always a choice.) Key dynamics are the prevailing trade winds, from the east (speeds increase in the western part of the sea), and strong katabatic winds off mountains on the continent. These katabatic winds can create sever conditions, including rough/confused seas. Helping Totem along: there should be a positive current, up to 2 knots at times, for the first 12-24 hours. It may not help the sea state, though.

Now current weather conditions: this is a complex 2 to 3 day passage. Begin watching weather well in advance to look for patterns. Look for systems that disrupt/ease prevailing trade winds/waves. The katabatic winds aren’t well integrated to GRIB models. PredictWind has more detail along the coastline, but may understate their effect.

Watch the currents for flow pattern – is it linear or disjointed? Will you have to navigate eddies and meanders? Now that we’re in countdown mode, weather and current are closely tracked to make a go, no-go decision.

pilot chart weather routing opencpn

OpenCPN with Climatology plugin overlay

Sources

Historical weather trend data:

  • Pilot Charts, like Cornell’s Cruising Ocean Atlas
  • Climatology plugin for OpenCPN (shown above),
  • Communication / blog posts by cruisers that have done this trip

Current weather conditions and forecast: note these are what we’re referencing on this passage. Other passages may add regional-specific sources!

  • PredictWind (various models and tools)
  • GMDSS (text) forecasts
  • local marine forecasts
  • observations for cruisers (when possible- thanks Itchy Foot!)

3 – Develop a safe, efficient route

We use PredictWind routing for an efficient path based on wind, waves, and current from four different GRIB models. The results show generally good grouping between the models, suggesting they agree on conditions. This still requires interpretation, however. Wave GRIBs are not good at representing real conditions when waves are affected by some land features; there are also the katabatic wind induced waves to consider.

PredictWind routing models based on different weather algorithms

PredictWind routing models based on different weather algorithms

The first third of the PredictWind route is free of increased risk we’ve noted earlier, and takes advantage of good current. Beyond that, we want to keep to deeper water – giving a wider margin to the continental shelf and mountainous headlands, and avoiding shallow banks. Hopefully this will reduce the katabatic wind affect and the chance of debris in the water. On the other hand, there will probably be more shipping traffic.

The wider route adds distance, making it roughly 400 miles. Estimating our boatspeed in these conditions, we hope to transit in a little over two days: a morning departure for a midday arrival after two nights at sea.  It’s possible we’d need to slow down, as we did sailing to Bonaire from Martinique. At least the moon is waxing again, so there’ll be nice light until midnight.

If seas get sloppy close to the islands, we may go further north. OpenCPN screenshot.

If seas get sloppy close to the islands, we may go further north. OpenCPN screenshot

4 – Weather window

Watching weather for the last week plus observations from cruisers in Santa Marta to helps index what forecasts show. While the forecast is for  a moderate 20 knots, to 25 knots on approach to Santa Marta, local observation is that wind is actually much stronger – up to 40 knots! Long range forecasts showing a possible window on December 26. That’s our ideal departure date, to give us a few days in Santa Marta before Jamie flies up to Puerto Rico for a rigging job. Six days out is just too far to count on at this point, but we’ll keep watching, seek local reports, and shift Totem’s plan as necessary.

5 – Bailout Options

Curacao and Aruba are options for the first part of the passage. Beyond, bailout options wane, but a helpful post on our Facebook page recommended Cabo de la Vela (thanks James!). In general, we have security concerns about stopping along Venezuela or Colombia and will avoid it if at all possible. Most passages should have multiple bailout options: find them by using guide books, charts, Coast Pilot books, and asking other cruisers.

6 – Destination clearance procedures

Outbound clearance in Bonaire is easy: one stop, one window, and they’re even going to be open on Christmas! For inbound to Colombia, the Marina Santa Marta will facilitate the paperwork, a more complicated process if clearing further west at Cartagena.

7 – Float plan

I won’t get on the float plan soap box except to say – it’s important. We’ll update our existing float plan for this specific passage:  download our float plan template from here.

From our crew to yours, our warmest wishes for happy holidays! We have our festive frolic going on here on Bonaire, and hope the weather window holds for a departure on the 26th.

Passage notes: westbound across the Caribbean

Sailing wing and wing

_DSC2312Totem is sailing toward sunsets again. Turning towards the Dutch Antilles from Martinique was more westbound than south. This passage brought back more than a familiar angle for sunrises and moonsets: it’s also…

  • downwind sailing for the first time in 18 months
  • first passage with more than one night at sea in 18 months
  • a nearly full moon! so nice on a passage, and something we had a knack for mis-timing
  • new destinations, instead of retracing a track

The 470nm distance was slightly awkward. It’s just long enough to necessitate a third night at sea. The benefit is a chance to get back into a passage rhythm that’s been absent for some time, something that seems to happen around the second or third day.

The start was slow; it took time to get out of the wind shadow of Martinique. Once into steady trades, the genoa was poled out and Totem took off. We spent almost the entire passage that way, much of it wing-and-wing. Leaving on a Wednesday, arriving on a Saturday, conditions were such that sometime by Tuesday we found that point on the passage when sea becomes a dreamscape to roll with indefinitely.

Sailing in company were our Australian friends on Utopia II, a boat we first met in Malaysia more than four years ago. Our boats have an uncanny ability to stay in proximity on multi-day passages, a highly unusual situation (normally, one boat horizons another within hours of departure). This proximity proved invaluable the morning after our first night at sea when Utopia lost steerage.

Sailing back to aid Utopia

Sailing back to aid Utopia

They were about three miles from our position, so we headed back to see if it was possible to assist. First speculation was that a net had pinned the rudder, but closer investigation (after Andrew swam to check, tethered to the boat, in 2 meter seas) told otherwise. Real cause: a through bolt securing the rudder post to the quadrant had sheared off. There was no spare for the 12mm diameter, 20cm long bit of steel.

sailboat under bare poles

Utopia drifts under bare poles

Adrift in the Caribbean: Andrew is swimming just behind Utopia II

Adrift in the Caribbean: Andrew is swimming just behind Utopia II

_DSC2317Jamie and Andrew set to rummaging through our caches of various spares on board. We had clevis pins in the right diameter, but they were too short. A steel rod, salvaged from a wreck on Chagos, wasn’t wide enough: only 10mm in diameter. This still proved to be the best alternative to drifting through the Caribbean. Jamie cut it to length with a hacksaw and Andrew swam over to retrieve it, bundled in a net bag with a handle for easier carrying. Meanwhile, they wallowed in the swells while we stayed close by.

Rigging the repair while crammed in a lazarette in a rolly boat was a job, but three hours losing steerage both boats were underway again. It’s a sober reminder for the importance of self sufficiency and friends in contact. There is no Sea Tow to call out here!

Happily the passage was otherwise uneventful. We averaged over 7 knots for the passage, including those three hours of negative VMG while solving Utopia II’s quadrant woes.

Steady trades averaging around 18 knots picked up the last day, with a current push putting our average over 9 knots.

Despite seas growing 2 to 3 meters, the ride was comfortable. Dead downwind can be a rolly point of sail but with the breeze 15 to 20 degrees off, the motion was ameliorated. The angle pushes the limits of wing/wing, but the jib (and not the main) was the side at risk of backing; Jamie adjusted twist to make backing was unlikely, and push us swiftly west. Conditions for good boat speed allowed the autopilot to steer instead of letting Totem get pushed around by seas. Swaths of sargasso weed floated by as our pair of boats flew towards Bonaire.

_DSC2299 _DSC2296

Progress the last day beyond our expectations required slowing down to avoid arriving in the dark. If the mountains of salt from the works at the south end of Bonaire didn’t announce our arrival in this new island, the welcoming flocks of flamingos did– winging right in front of Totem, their long necks making an impossible profile.

_DSC2332 _DSC2323

We couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome to Bonaire when arrival included having two moorings handed to us by the crew of Rhapsody. Boats here don’t anchor, they’re required to use moorings or take a marina slip; it’s a move to protect the coral, which is truly spectacular. Bonaire’s reputation as a dive destination is something we can’t wait to explore.

_DSC2343

We’re committed to spending part of every day here underwater. This will not be difficult! A garden of corals and fish beckon freediving off the back of Totem.

Boat kids from Utopia II and Totem

Boat kids from Utopia II and Totem

An array of corals and a zillion little fish

An array of corals and a zillion little fish

Blue lines show our track through the Caribbean, from arrival to Barbados last year; the orange dotted line is the anticipated path west. Curacao, Colombia, then along the San Blas coastline in Panama in January… aiming for a canal transit in early 2018.

Caribbean track

And meanwhile, more memories to make.

Totem family crew silliness

Totem family crew silliness

Looking west from Martinique

Drone view St Anne to Marin Martinique

When we look back on the Caribbean, Martinique will feature among the best memories—and not just because of the pâté, brie, and baguettes. A stop to provision and facilitate a trip to Puerto Rico for Jamie stretched out and filled with beaches and swimming, exploring the history and charm of this lush island, Thanksgiving celebrations – all packaged in the company of friends.

So good

ProvisioningThe pâté, brie, and baguette factor can’t be ignored! I don’t know when we’ll be in French territory again, so enjoy the treats instead of watching calories. The team favorite for pastry from the Sainte Anne boulangerie: pain au chocolat et amandes (basically: a croissant, with chocolate AND almond paste, and a dusting of powdered sugar). Oh my. Beautiful baguettes, one euro (about $1.20) each – shame they don’t keep, we’ll get our last before departing for Bonaire today.

Everyday treats aside, provisioning here is excellent: a wide selection and great prices. I don’t often provision deeply, but make do with what’s available. People everywhere have to eat, so it only makes sense for a few reasons: to save money if ports ahead are particularly costly, of if the selection will be “aged” (thinking of the flour full of weevils in Tonga), or if it will simply be very remote and few or no stores are available (an uncommon situation).

Here, it’s the breadth and value. The affordability of everything from balsamic vinegar to risotto makes me wonder if France doesn’t subsidize food in Martinique. Staples on board Totem that should last months ahead: UHT milk, canned tomatoes, olive oil, cocoa, pasta and more.

There’s planning ahead, too. If we want an affordable glass of wine, this is our last chance for a very long time (wine at our budget in Mexico was undrinkable). There’s very nice wine here for about $5 bottle.

And then, well, FRENCH. There are specialties sold here that will add enjoyment to many meals ahead. I love French puy lentils. There’s saucisson sec: the dried sausages will keep for months in the refrigerator, and are a delicious treat. GOOD butter. Marinated anchovies. Dijon and whole grain mustard. Affordable luxuries for the cruiser’s diet!

Everyday shopping at local shops, but it's great to stock up at the big supermarket.

Everyday shopping at local shops, but it’s great to stock up at the big supermarket. Also: Le Snacking. hee!

Nautical hub

Martinique is a great place to get things done on a boat. While it’s not a great place to ship things in (that’s nearby St Lucia, kinder to yachts in transit), the chandleries are well supplied and there’s expert service available. One of those experts looked at Totem’s Yanmar (our 4JH3 turbo has been overheating) and declared that not only had the heat exchanger failed, but the engine showed signs of being late in life. That’s bad news but hopefully continued care (and a new heat exchanger) will see us through until repowering is necessary. Jamie got lots of boat yoga practice in the engine compartment to replace it.

Jamie practices boat yoga in the engine compartment to replace the heat exchanger

Look at that shiny new heat exchanger!

The finish line for the Mini Transat was in view from Totem’s cockpit, a solo trans-Atlantic race in VERY small boats. The excitement of seeing boats come in over several days, tracking them on the race website, spying them from hikes around the south end, and the spectacle of the fleet after all had finished. Notice how on the transport ship, the keels are painted in fluorescent colors… a safety measure I don’t want to have to think about.

Mini TransAt Martinique

Mini Transat boat sailing into the harbor after finishing

Boats loaded on deck: trying not to think of why all the keels are fluorescent colors

Loaded up for the next destination

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Exploring and fun

We rented a car to get around a few days: rentals are affordable until high season kicks in (as low as 23 euros/day!). Teaming up with the Utopia crew – more fun for everyone. In the north, the town of St Pierre has relics of Mt Pele’s eruption in 1902: all but a couple of residents were killed. One, the town troublemaker, was in the stone equivalent of a drunk tank – enough to protect him (that’s the second picture below).

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And just having fun, between the boats at anchor in Sainte Anne…and pizza night!

Sainte Anne sunset: kids on the SUP and kayak

Sainte Anne sunset: kids on the SUP and kayak

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These besties are making the most of our months together.

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Puerto Rico

The primary reason we spent more time in Martinique than expected was to accommodate Jamie’s trip to Puerto Rico, delayed in an online booking snafu. The dermatologist wasn’t happy with the biopsy of his excision in Puerto Rico. Time for another slice. His flights bounced through Guadeloupe and Sint Maarten, allowing a peek at hurricane damage. Birds-eye view of the Simpson Lagoon showed boats anchored outside.

St martin anchorage

In Puerto Rico, recovery in progress from the ground:

Trees starting to leaf out again: the highway from San Juan to Ponce

Trees down, but many standing and starting to leaf out again: the highway from San Juan to Ponce

Just a little off kilter

Just a little off kilter

Jamie is a plastic surgeon’s dream. Here’s how he looked right after the surgery… and once I removed his stitches six days later. The biopsy is back: basal cell, but all clear margins. A clean bill of health. We just need to stay on top of regular checkups.

derm before after

Passage prep

This is first passage of more than one night at sea since sailing from Bermuda to Connecticut last year. It’s also our first downwind passage in a long while, and the full moon only just starting to wane. Comfortable reaching and nice moonlight, away from the small-boat traffic of islands…a very nice setup. It’s a somewhat awkward length: just long enough that we can’t quite squeak it into a two-night trip. So we’ll leave this afternoon, and point for Bonaire, and should arrive on Saturday morning. Follow along on our PredictWind tracker–is displays a snapshot of our speed along with position.

Much of this will be on port tack. Our galley is uphill if we’re heeling to starboard and cooking can be harder, so I’ve done a little extra prep. These are my first effort at homemade “condensed soup,” like Campbells but DIY from the beautiful leeks and potatoes in the market here (along with a white sauce for bolognese style lasagna).

Homemade condensed soup: easy heat-n-eat for the passage

Homemade condensed soup: easy heat-n-eat for the passage

I use whiteboard in the pantry. It’s usually the progressive shopping list. That’s on the right; on the left is a list of meals prepped for the passage. If my brain is foggy (adjusting to being at sea can do that) it’s easy to look at the list for a quick reminder. At the top are leftovers to use up. Only in a French island would that include duck fat!

passage prep meals

Bidding farewell to the beautiful anchorage in Sainte Anne.

Sainte Anne

Caribbean cruising after hurricanes Irma and Maria

The Baths at Virgin Gorda BVIs

A stream of migrating boats attest that the Caribbean sailing season is starting NOW. The fleet heading north from Grenada and Trinidad, those taking the offshore route from the USA, and boats in the trans-Atlantic fleets. Yet questions about the Caribbean’s readiness in a post-hurricane season still swirl: after the havoc of Irma and Maria, what’s changed? Where can we go? Even for sailors here in the islands, contemplating their next move, the answer seems to hang just out of reach like a suspenseful plot twist.

Spoiler: THE CARIBBEAN IS WAITING FOR YOU. You can go now. Please.

Yelena Rogers St John Photography beautiful beach

St John, USVI, photographed THIS week by Yelena Rogers

Pinterest caribbean cruisingI get that there is some reluctance. People love them some disaster porn, and the media served up a ton of drama in the wake of the storms. In fairness, it was ALL that in the aftermath: my first reaction after Irma hit was “welp, there goes this season for the Caribbean.” Total knee jerk reaction to the shocking pictures, and… it seems that I was wrong.

While rebuilding from the impact of these massive storms will take time, that doesn’t mean the islands aren’t capable of welcoming boats now: overwhelmingly, they are. Overwhelmingly, it’s safe. Overwhelmingly, you’re not a drain on constrained resources. In fact, the funds spent by visiting cruisers and charters are badly needed – tourist dollars are critical to most island economies!

It IS going to be different: know what to expect. Do your homework on destinations. I don’t want to sugar coat reality: it will take a long time for many settlements to rebuild. There are places that still don’t have power, and places still don’t have water. You may not want to go there. Some are waiting for both, and more (phone service? Internet?), like Jost Van Dyke. Upscale tourism… not happening. BIG DEAL.

Mostly? The mantra I keep hearing: this will be like the Caribbean 30 (40, 50 ) years ago: before it was developed with an eye to cater to the high end of tourism. The new definition of “beach bar” is a guy by the palm tree with a cooler of beer inviting you to join him and learn about his home. But who better to visit, and put a few bucks into the economy, than self-sufficient cruisers who show up on our floating islands and supply our utilities, make our own water, generate our own power?

How do you know where it’s OK to go?

Ports & Projects is a brilliantly simple interactive map to answer that question. The tool was recently launched by the team at Sailors Helping (website, Facebook), a nonprofit that’s the brainchild of cruisers Victoria Fine and Jon Vidar. Based in Puerto Rico, they founded the Sailors Helping rally to rebuildorganization to help their island neighbors after Irma hit, harnessing the help of hundreds of cruisers and other islanders. Under their watch, commercial vessels, private boats, even plans were coordinated with goods to deliver where it was needed with a speed and agility that the larger relief groups couldn’t match. But the bigger organizations have stepped in now, so Sailors Helping has a new direction to support the islands.

“We know the best way to help islands recover is to encourage cruisers and tourists to return,” says Victoria. “We knew that coming into damaged ports without clear information could be intimidating, so we decided to fix the problem ourselves.”

Developed with the help of Janeiro Digital, volunteer Jonathan Bingham’s organization, Ports & Projects lets you browse through islands on the map to learn 1) where you can go, and 2) where you can help. A solid base of information is in the tool already, and more is being added all the time. Here’s a sample of the page for Nanny Cay, on Tortola in the BVI. Remember Awesome Ted? He’s the boatyard manager there. We know this info is spot on!

Nanny Cay SH page

Navigate the website to find an island – and then a port – and then the detailed information. For each port listed, there will be current access status. Information about the availability of mooring/docking/anchoring… water, fuel, and power…groceries… bars/restaurants…etc. EASY.

Where can you help?

The cruising community is famously giving. A lot of people have asked: what can I do to help? Planning for this, instead of winging it, is smart. Sailors Helping is building this into their tool by including project listings by port. Information includes:

  • The nature of the project (curated based ease of access to harbors)
  • Timeline
  • Skillsets needed
  • Materials needed

This information will be updated throughout the season – and cruisers who visit can submit their own reports to help keep them current, too. Here’s a snapshot of a project request on Anegada, BVI.

Anegada rebuild

We’re members of the Ocean Cruising Club, which has used this feature to plan volunteer activities for rally boats after they arrive—so many cruisers want to give back to the islands they visit. (Side note: if you have questions about OCC, get in touch. We’re generally not joiners; this is a fine organization)

Pool’s open!

When we get the anchor set, Jamie usually yells out – “the pool’s open!” Well, hopeful cruisers, the pool’s open at the Caribbean islands hit by Irma and Maria. In October I sat on a panel for Cruising World at the Annapolis boat show, to talk about the post #Irmaria hurricane season. Preparing for that I had updates from folks who stick their heads underwater in these islands – people who dive for conservation, or for their jobs, or for fun. It’s not totally unscathed (that awesome Kraken sculpture fell over!) but reports are good. In the BVI, despite exposure of islands to the force of the storm, there are sites such as the wreck of the RMS Rhone that appear almost completely untouched.

Wreck of the Rhone, AFTER the hurricanes - look at that coral!

Wreck of the Rhone, AFTER the hurricanes – look at that coral!

Want more info? check these out:

Security

Were we headed back to the islands, instead of the Pacific, my #1 concern would be security. Are we subject to increased risk, in island where people are more wanting? The reports of looting in the wake of the hurricanes was very real. But that’s been a couple of months now – and everything I hear suggests the risk of crime isn’t elevated now. MOSTLY. So be smart: like you always should! Check the Caribbean Safety & Security Net. Look for updates on an island’s Noonsite page. Ask and read in island-specific or Caribbean regional Facebook groups. Talk to people near you who may have passed through. Get a pulse for where you want to go and decide…just like you NORMALLY should anyway.

Big picture planning

Here’s a little perspective. The HORRIBLE DEVASTATION PLASTERED EVERYWHERE IN THE MEDIA (well for a little while anyway): here’s how much of the Caribbean was meaningfully affected.

Caribbean post irma-maria

Right: it’s not that much, is it! In fact, mostly there wasn’t an impact. So here’s a zoom in at that corner, and focus on the hard hit area:

Skipping the Caribbean "because of the hurricanes"? YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID.

Skipping the Caribbean “because of the hurricanes”? YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID.

It’s really not much. Blue dotted lines: I’d be checking these spots and considering carefully to pick/choose where to go. Green lines: lots of rebuilding happening, but not off the menu. Red: let’s give Barbuda some space shall we?! If places rebuilding make you uncomfortable with the decision, one option, really, is just to skip by a handful of spots. But a modicum of research will allow an informed choice. And that, really, is the only “hard” part about this Caribbean season: sailors who may wish to skip a spot might actually have to sail overnight now and again. NOTHING is far.

Info and resources by Island

To be clear, we have not returned to these islands ourselves. I’d like to, and it’s tempting, but our priority right now is to cross the circumnavigation track in Pacific Mexico before Niall heads off to college – so we’re Panama bound. But were we to spend another year in the Caribbean: I’d have no qualms. Here’s why, and where I’d look, to have confidence in the places we’d go with our family. If you have other resources that are useful, please add them in the comments or message me! I’d like to help cruisers, and charterers, feel good about their choices. After the go-to resources above, from Sailors Helping, Noonsite, and Facebook – here’s more on islands that hopeful visitors may be wondering about.

PUERTO RICO

Puerto Rico was hard hit by Maria, and many areas don’t have power. But key ports are ready for cruisers. PR is exceptionally well covered in the Ports & Projects site. At the southwest corner, near Cabo Rojo, we were happy to hear from the awesome marina manger of Marina Pescaderia (Jose Mendez) that they have power, and water, and internet. This is a perfect first stop in PR! Friends recently departed from here, and Jose helped them–of course!–with information and resources. On the north coast, friends in the San Juan Bay Marina and Puerto Del Rey on the northeast have similar positive updates. Puerto Rico has “stuff,” duty-free fuel, and I think is the friendliest stop in the Caribbean.

Sourced on Facebook - Playa Buye, PR, near Marina Pescaderia

Sourced on Facebook – Playa Buye, PR, near Marina Pescaderia

USVI – St Thomas

I’ve been chatting with my friend Kristie Weiss. We met in Isles des Saintes, Guadeloupe last year; her family is now living on St Thomas and went through both hurricanes. She took this picture on the beach behind Green Cay and says that right now is an amazing time to be in the VIs. “The green on the new growth is beautiful, the water is stunning and there are NO people!!!!” Who wouldn’t want a beach like the one below, instead of one packed with people? Moi. You would NEVER get this beach to yourself in a normal year… and by the way, the Abi Beach Bar just out of frame is open.

St Thomas - beach behind Green Cay. Photo, Kristie Weiss

It’s not just the water that’s looking good. Here’s a view of Charlotte Amalie during last week’s Caribbean boat show. Photo by Phil Blake, and thanks to Marina at Yacht Haven Grande for sharing it.

STT- Charlotte Amalie Nov 12 Marina at YHG- photo Phil Blake

USVI- St John

Coral Bay views are looking beautiful. These pictures posted by the Skinny Legs bar & restaurant (thanks guys!) this week:

STJ- Coral Bay from above- Nov 12 Skinnys STJ- Coral Bay - Skinnys pic

St John’s relatively sparse population and light infrastructure mean a longer rebuild time. The good folks at Skinny’s know the scoop: “Anchoring in Coral Bay could be difficult for the unfamiliar. There were a lot of boats sunk in the storms and there is still a lot of debris out there. The outer bays would be better than Coral Bay harbor.” But they go on with the good news: the Coral Bay Yacht Club is hosting its annual Thanksgiving Regatta!  And – Skinny’s expects to open by early December, so you can get your fix from their awesome burgers soon.

BVI

The damage in the BVIs was meaningful, and where there’s a lot of development (like Road Town) it’s going to take time. But my friend, Tortola resident, and awesome blogger Brittany put it–paraphrasing from fuzzy boat show memories here!–“the islands are now green, the water is still turquoise, and the beer is cold!” It might be harder to get to the grocery store (but wow, it’s STOCKED), and you might not get to visit the iconic beach bars still rebuilding (Willy Ts, Soggy Dollar) but the BVIs belong on a cruising itinerary. Heck, FOXY’S is open! So you just might want to pick a different route than the conventional recommendations based on what’s most ready for visitors…like this boat arriving, THIS week, into Nanny Cay marina with the Caribbean 1500.

Caribbean 1500 boats arriving into Nanny Cay, Tortola

We took the pic below, and the one on the top of this post at BVIs icon, The Baths, on our daysail with Aristocat Charters. FWIW: the ONLY pre-hurricane pics in this whole post. Based on what I’ve seen in social media… they look JUST THE SAME. So go.
The Baths at Virgin Gorda BVIs

Sailors Helping covers the main ports: the BVI Traveller link above helps with details for the little islands. And check out the BVI Strong Flotilla events! They are organizing “Sunday Funday” parties: float in, swim, dance, drink, enjoy the beautiful islands… their regular events are at favorite BVIs destinations that look like WAY too much fun…and the Anegada Lobster Festival is coming soon.

ANGUILLA

For port info, see Sailors helping, but check out “What We Do In Anguilla” for current info on land. They’ve got a list of what’s open: it includes 34 restaurants and 5 groceries, and just makes me wonder… what’s NOT open?

SXM

SXM- dinghy dock bar- Simpson Bay

St Martin / Sint Maarten has felt a little harder to peg. The reports coming out after the ‘cane were pretty awful. But in some ways, SXM is better situated for recovery than many islands: their utilities are largely underground, so easier to bounce back with fewer repairs. What’s not clear is what’s on the bottom of the lagoon and when it will be safe for anchoring. But friends in SXM visiting their boat this week (which survived!). The lagoon may not have boats anchored out, but dinghies are zipping around. Dinghy docks are opening up at Dinghy Dock restaurant, Simpson Bay Marina, Shrimpy’s, and even Marina Port Royale (although probably care required near the marina). Chandleries and grocery stores and shops are open, as are quite a few bars & restaurants – they are doing their part to partonize them.  Fighting the good fight, Brian & Rebecca!

I like how Rebecca summed it up: “Sure, there is debris and destruction but they are cleaning up, and I had a lovely swim at Buccaneer yesterday! I think if you can deal with minor inconveniences, and you love it here, come back and spend your money, that seems to be what is needed most!”

DOMINICA

Dominica was our favorite stop in the Caribbean. It is heartbreaking to see how hard it’s been hit. There are two main ports for cruisers: Portsmouth, and Roseau. Roseau is the main settlement. If we were headed back that way, I’d anchor in Portsmouth, work with one of the great guys who make up PAYS (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services), and do my best to put $$ into their economy. I’d check in with Sailors Helping on any projects to join, and ask with the International Rescue Group (a solid relief org that’s focused on Dominica right now) and see what they need or how we could help.

Want to join other boats to help?

Sailors Helping is planning their own Rally to Rebuild as a multi-day effort at sites across the islands in January 2018. “It’ll definitely be a work-hard-play-hard event,” Victoria says with a laugh. “Volunteers will be able to restore local homes and independent businesses. Sundowners will be optional but highly encouraged!” This sounds like fun! Dates and details are coming – sign up at SailorsHelping.org to get emailed details as they’re available.

Soon come, y’all. The islands are waiting!

Got more info, resources, whatever to add? Let me know in the comments or by getting in touch!

Folk art and daydreams from Bequia

Sailing upwind in the Caribbean

Cruisers merrily claim they “go where the wind blows.” It’s sort of true, but implies a more laissez-faire approach than migration patterns belie. On the day we departed – just as hurricane season is waning – we saw more boats sailing north and away from Grenada with us than we saw during entire stretch from Tortola down to Grenada a few months ago, at hurricane season’s peak. Weather patterns are shifting, and the fleet is on the move!

Provisioning up for our own departure at the bustling Saturday farmer’s market in St George is a treat for the senses. Aromas of spice waft from streetside hawkers with the cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and more grown in Grenada. This lush island produces a wealth of produce; we’ve been here just long enough that I want to see and thank a few particular vendors before sailing away, like the Rastafarian farm stall, where they make perfect selections for me (two avocado ready to eat today please, four more to ripen during the week).  Or smiling vendor of tasty vegetarian roti, dubbed “Blessed Love” in my head for the phrase he warmly repeats. And Jessie, who sells a variety of produce and spices in her stall, and patiently instructs me on how to prepare mauby bark into a tasty beverage…the moment captured by our friend Tony from the Wauquiez 38, Sage.

Grenada market fruitseller

I have a habit of buying more than I can easily carry at the St George’s market

Our destination a few months from now is Panama,but  instead of starting westward Totem has also joined the seasonal migration and sailed north. The primary reason is for Jamie to fly back to Puerto Rico for a follow up with the dermatologist (kids, wear your sunscreen!); Martinique’s busy airport makes this easier. But heading north also allows a stop in Bequia, an island that figured meaningfully in the long-ago dreams Jamie and I had to go cruising…one we passed by on our rush south to run away from the ‘canes.

sailboat arriving in Bequia

Arriving in Bequia: bonus crew, because a day-hop is more fun with a friend

For Jamie, a small boat shaped Bequia dreams: when he worked at the Fort Rachel marina in Mystic, Connecticut, he was given a wooden dory that needed repair. Six feet long, maybe a little more, it was alleged to date from the 19th century and came with a history that included months at sea becalmed in the south Atlantic. Wooden oarlocks, traditional fasteners, chipped layers paint…and the tales of origin from a small Caribbean island where whaling was still practiced, and wooden tenders like this built on the shoreline.

An apron was the unexceptional source of my Caribbean dreams: nearly two decades ago when we had babies instead of teenagers, my mother found an apron proclaiming “BEQUIA” in uneven stitching at the top, appliquéd with designs depicting island life scattered over the cotton cloth. Colorful fabric shapes formed women at work: one pounded grain, another carried a basket on her head. Birds swirled over the silhouettes of the island, and fishermen lured their catch from a small boat. Someday I’d visit this Bequia, and see what Caribbean life was like for myself.

R Williams appliqued apron

As if confirmation that this apron is at least as much folk art as utilitarian, stitched at the bottom hem was the name of the artist: “R Williams.” With Bequia in reach: could I possibly find this person?

Dinghy dock Bequia

Dinghy dock at Bequia

In fact, what seemed an insurmountable task for a short stop (2 nights, fewer days) was manifest into reality shortly after setting foot on the island. A charmed series of referrals spaced in mere minutes lead to two women in the craft bazaar. Turning the lightly soiled apron over in their hands, they murmured over the design before proclaiming “this here is Miz Rita’s work,” and told me how to find her – leaving me speechless. R had a name. Not only that, but Rita Williams lived just a short walk away! Less than an hour from arrival in Bequia I had the gift of thanking Rita Williams, and telling her how much I loved this cotton cloth she’d years ago stitched into a functional work of art, and how it played a part in fueling my dreams to sail away. Sitting at her bedside, Rita shared about her life, about Bequia, about the stories behind those appliqués: men talking while they fish, women cooking whale meat in a coal stove, the effort and celebration of a community when one of the grand mammals is taken.

Rita Williams folk artist

Rita laughed her way through decades of reminiscing!

It opened a whole new world, and put Bequia in a whole new light. I returned the next day with the rest of the family. Rita graciously retold her stories, teaching the intangible truths about her culture, offering the treasure of human connection and sharing we seek in this nomadic life. In one fell swoop she’s one of the unforgettable figures shaping our time in the Caribbean. She’s a window into the past: crafts bazaar now has few locally-made items, featuring instead a lot of generic Caribbean-themed shirts with scenes of rastas and ganga, referencet to rum and pirates, made in another continent and stamped “BEQUIA” (and probably repeated for JAMAICA, ST VINCENT, DOMINICA, and others). Bedridden after having her foot amputated a few years ago, Rita’s no longer sewing.

We skipped a lot of anchorages, passed up a lot of “must-do” experiences. A few cruisers asked why we were moving so fast. For boats that don’t expect to leave the Caribbean, I guess it is a dizzying pace. And while I do wish we had time to explore more of the Grenadines, and I do wish we had the budget for a lobster BBQ on the beach, and I do wish we could have done more of hiking on these inviting ridgelines, we are at peace with how we travel on our terms. There is always more than we can possibly see, but I’m so glad we didn’t miss Rita’s stories.

Sucking down what are possibly the world's best popsicles - tipped off by the SV Party of Five crew. SO GOOD

Sucking down what are possibly the world’s best popsicles – tipped off by the SV Party of Five crew. SO GOOD

Bequia waterfront and dory

Bequia waterfront… and a wooden dory?

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.

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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.

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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

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

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