Crewing on Totem

For the 800 mile run from Puerto Peñasco to Puerto Vallarta, two coaching clients responded to our spontaneous offer for sharing the sail; Sam shares their experience in this guest post.

David read the email before I did. And he’d already made up his mind not to go when he came upstairs to tell me.

“It’s too close to Christmas and too long to be gone.”

“Where would the kids go?”

“What if I can’t get the time off of work?”

“What if the plane tickets are outrageous?”

And my response to these arguments?

“Of course we’re going.”

Two weeks later we were on our way to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico to crew on Totem for the 800 mile passage south to La Cruz. Normally one doesn’t blast their way past all the wonders of Baja or spend cold nights on the Sea of Cortez in winter, but Totem’s got a fancy new paint job on her newly dry bottom, and she made it back in the water just in time to retrieve Niall from Puerto Vallarta on his winter break.

Schedules are typically frowned upon in cruising—for good reason—but the weather gods acquiesced to these unusual circumstances, and we were able to leave the dock and head south on Friday morning, December 14th.

My husband, David, and I became enamored with the idea of sailing about a year and a half ago. It came out of nowhere, really. We’d never sailed. We don’t know anyone who sails. It just happened, and it’s awesome.

After we’d made up our minds to cruise with our two young kids, we took the plunge and became Jamie and Behan’s coaching clients in May of 2018, shopped for boats all summer, and bought our vessel in November.

Told you it was serious!

Serendipitously, we were actually scheduled to sign all the purchase paperwork for our boat the same day we received the email asking if we could come crew on Totem. Clearly a sailor’s life is the life for us. We’d taken every bit of email and video chat advice the Giffords had given, and now we were on our way to learn from them firsthand.

After a long day of travel by car, plane, and shuttle bus, Jamie and Behan invited us aboard. Climbing down Totem’s companionway was the first time I felt I was descending not just into a boat but into a home, with evidence of their happy memories and hard work everywhere I looked.

So there we were, work, parenting and holiday preparations put on hold to take advantage of our first crewing opportunity. As inexperienced as we are, I’m not sure we were much help, but I have a feeling that was kind of the point.

David and I learned so many things about ourselves, about passage making, weather, sail trim and so much more, that I believe this was a better investment than any class we could have taken.

Just a few of the things I discovered:

  • The magic of butyl tape
  • I get queasy the first 36 hours on passage
  • Good food helps
  • So does Dramamine
  • Lee cloths are a delightfully cozy cocoon
  • A Barber Hauler is superior to a jib sheet at every point of sail except close hauled
  • Baja is 100% worth coming back for
  • Just not in winter
  • Old gray pelicans look like wise wizards

But this wouldn’t be a full review of my experience if I didn’t mention the day that made me want to reevaluate this lifestyle. It was a nasty 24 hours of steep-ish, closely patterned waves when we left the southern tip of Baja and headed east to Mexico’s mainland. Totem was treading a fine line between keeping her sails full and keeping the waves astern of the beam. It required near constant steering and eyes on the water.

I found myself in a dark mood after that, questioning if I was making the right decision to one day do this with my kids…and without the Giffords by my side. If this is what cruising is like, maybe it’s a little too much adventure for me, I thought.

I knew I was too exhausted and frayed to think reasonably about it, so I told myself to wait it out. Don’t make any decisions about my future until I’ve had some rest and a chance to see the big picture.

I’m glad I listened to that voice instead of the anxious, overly tired one.

The truth is, passage making is only about 5% to 10% of the cruising life, and cold, winter passages with a schedule to adhere to are virtually unheard of. After 10+ years of cruising, the Giffords only had 3 or 4 stories to share with us about less-than-ideal conditions…all of them manageable and none of them even close to resembling a storm at sea.

This is the biggest decision we’ve ever made. It’ll change our entire lives and give our kids a very different childhood from the one they might have on land. So I don’t take it lightly. And neither do Jamie and Behan. Every decision is carefully calculated, and they’ve planned for all contingencies.

I already suspected we’d chosen our cruising coaches well, but after seeing them in action, practicing what they preach, I know with certainty my family will be successful in our cruising life if we continue to heed their words.

I’m grateful for all of it. The night we anchored in Honeymoon Cove will be fodder for my future cruising dreams, and that last day in Banderas Bay before our flight home gave me the rest—and perspective—I needed. But I’m especially appreciative of that long 24 hours of grumpy seas and practically no sleep. It was hard, but we did it. And we know we can do it again.

I can’t tell you how much comfort it brought me to do my first passage under the full guidance of the Giffords. I wish everyone on the path to family cruising could have this same opportunity.

Sam, David, and their kids are counting down to cruising! Bookmark their pending blog, Muse and the everyday epic, to follow along. Totem and crew are now in Barra de Navidad, revisiting favorite haunts with Niall while’s aboard for winter break. Find out our schedule for boat shows in Toronto, Seattle, and Puerto Vallarta area seminars on our Events page.  

Meeting old friends for the first time

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Three weeks in Chesapeake Bay so far. Three weeks with so much smiling and talking with friends that there are days my jaw aches. Old friends, new friends, old friends met for the first time. It started with the spectacular crab feed put on by a blog reader and newfound friend when we arrived in late September.

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Bay crab, done right: outside, table covered with paper, no cutlery – just mallets. SO GOOD.

This came at the end of a sunny afternoon where we had a spontaneous open boat party on Totem, pinging folks who have been in touch here or through our Facebook page and inviting them aboard. It is just plain cool to meet people who we have come to know as names on the screen, and turning those distant contacts into personal encounters and a great time. Good thing we enjoyed that sun, because there was precious little the following two weeks! Wow, they were delicious. Old Bay is now stocked in our pantry. Hello Maryland!

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We shifted south to Camp Quigley, as Mary Marie & Frank call their dock; it’s a frequent host to friends on the southbound migration this time of year, and a great excuse to visit on our the way to the SSCA gam. Who did we hear from, as we tied up? Newly minted circumnavigators Mike and Deanna from R Sea Kat, who we last saw on Ascension Island. Because Mary Marie and Frank have been cruisers, they “get it” and gathered us for an evening of trading stories. We also smelled a lot better after giving the Quigley laundry machines a workout!

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Our anchorage afterwards for the SSCA gam was in the beautiful Rhode River, which is just a few miles from Annapolis but feels far from, well, anything.

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The event was well attended, despite the steady rain. Jamie and I did a presentation that covered our experiences in some spectacular cruising destinations we’ve visited. Pure dream fodder, aiming to inspire, and so much fun to share! Solavore had provided us with an oven to raffle off to attendees – more about them soon, we are big fans of this solar oven. It’s just too bad the weather didn’t cooperate to allow a demonstration. At the gam, again were familiar faces from our near and distant past… as well as those we’d only known through the internet.

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Mark Brownhill, sandwiched between weather dudes Chris Parker (left) and Lee Chesneau (right)

I loved being able to give Lee Chesneau a hug and tell him how much his class about understanding the 500mb chart helped me on the path to better interpreting weather data when I took it many years ago. Actually, I think I had to take it twice, but it was important! More recently we’ve been introduced to Chris Parker and his invaluable services as a weather router for US/Caribbean cruisers. And between those two great guys we have met: another, Mark Brownhill, who I traded many emails with over the last few months (he’s responsible for getting us to the gam and organizes the SSCA’s Seven Seas U educational programs).

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Like so many cruisers of all stripes— the hopefuls, the gonna-go, the been there / done that—I’ve read the magazines published by this highly recognizable couple. I didn’t know what to expect from meeting Bob & Jody in person, but will say this: they are even more wonderful than you think! Their interest in inspiring others to follow the cruising life… something I think can only make the world a better place… is 100% real.

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It was just bad luck that the weather brightened significantly only when the gam had ended…but that made it easier to welcome a few friends on Totem. The family aboard Majestic brought their pretty St Francis 44 down to anchor nearby and hang out for some sunny hours. This family means so much to me: I’ve corresponded with mom Cindy for nearly a decade, since we found each other on a Yahoo group…or was it that Mothering forum first? Regardless, it is SO COOL to make that virtual friendship transition to in-person.

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We were able to do a little cruising-boat-show-n-tell with another local family that intends to cast off next year. Getting to see how people who had actually been cruising set up their boats was really helpful for me before we left: I’m glad to be able to give back.

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We had a few days after the SSCA gam and before the boat show. Jamie and I spent a morning checking out a boat listing in the area on behalf of one of our coaching clients. I added several photos Jamie’s boat yoga (tagged #awkward) to my collection.

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Afterwards, we got to meet another old friend for the first time! Captain Suky, a delivery skipper and generally awesome human who I’ve known through the Women Who Sail forum, recently bought a boat; Jamie checked out the rig for her.

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See “barber pole”-ing on the backstay? No bueno. On close inspection: pitting an even bigger problem.

We relocated for the US Sailboat Show to a private dock near the venue in Annapolis. Hurricane Matthew loomed and we were grateful for a snug location well up the creek….a 20 minute walk, even less by dock-to-dock water taxi!

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And thus began a hectic week working the booth for L&L Pardey Books, supporting Lin Pardey to sell books from her publishing house (she’s also behind Voyaging With Kids). The kids were a big help, pitching in on booth setup.

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the alert will notice Siobhan remains barefoot.

We closed a successful first day at the show by hosting Lin along Paul & Sheryl Shard of Distant Shores TV, who we met in St Martin earlier this year, for dinner on Totem. It felt a little surreal to have these cruising luminaries on board- that’s a lot of experience in Totem’s cockpit! There were great stories, and funny coincidences (beware a certain bay in Croatia), but ultimately – just a bunch of cruisers sharing laughs on the water together.

Lin Pardey Paul Sheryl Shard Behan Jamie Gifford on Totem

yeah, I’m wearing an apron. no smart comments

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Photo- Paul Shard

There were some precious reunions, too. We had a great reunion with old friend Brad Baker, who is an owner at Seattle’s Swiftsure Yachts brokerage. We last saw him waving goodbye when our families parted ways in French Polynesia, six years ago: they sailed back to Seattle and we continued across the Pacific. It was also the first time we’d seen Rich Boren since he helped cast off our docklines in 2010, as we departed La Cruz, Mexico for the Marquesas. It’s just great to catch up and feel the years melt away…sweet reunions indeed!

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The show was a whirlwind of first meets with people we actually kinda knew already, as internet shifted to IRL. On site after helping deliver a boat for Swiftsure was Andy Cross from Three Sheets Northwest. After trading email for years, it was great to finally to meet in person.

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Then there was this awesome, who I have co-administrated a women’s sailing forum with for years. We chat just about every day…but we’d never met, or even spoken live. It was amazing to finally get together with Nica Waters! I think Pussers Painkillers…the rum drinks that are obligatory at the Annapolis boat show…may have kicked in by the time we got this pic.

Nica and Behan, together at last!

Nica and Behan, together at last!

Nica and I joined a meetup of the group we admin (with a few accompanying partners & spouses), since many of the Women Who Sail were in town for the show…

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…like Suky (that was her boat above) and Judy Hildebrand, another delivery captain and generally fabulous sailing woman I’ve long connected with digitally, and had a lot of laughs with over a few days in Annapolis. Judy was was one step ahead of us on an extended delivery engagement across much of the Atlantic this year… up until Bermuda, when we pointed to Connecticut and she did a victory leg to the Mediterranean. I’d love to do a passage with her someday!

dsc00391After was a gathering of alt-living bloggers, which Cindy coined the BumTotemJesticPalooza– as we joined the liveaboard Majestic crew and land/sea rambling Bumfuzzles, with future cruisers the Mowerys. More old friends with first meets.

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Photo: Maddy Thomas

The kids weren’t all that excited about the boat show – not their thing. But Cindy wrangled a pile of kids for the day – because boat mamas, we’re a tribe, and look out for each other.

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BumTotemJesticPalooza! Photo: Cindy Wallach

Also looking out for our junior crew was this awesome family (formerly known as the Dafnes), who spirited the Totem kids away to Philly for some fun while Jamie and I were preoccupied. Once a cruiser (or boat kid)… always one! And yet another gonna-go-cruiser helped us get them back, when we neglected to give Niall his passport (turns out, 17 is too old to be an unaccompanied minor on the train and he was not allowed on without ID. Holy paranoia batman!). Grateful for friends who understand, and lend support.

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Escape Room….they were so close!!

The next morning, Jamie and I talked about how there were so many people coming by the booth that we enjoyed talking to, and the conversations always felt too short, like we could have gone on for hours…but there’s a boat show going on and it’s impossible. To try and extend some of those conversations, we decided to throw out a “hey let’s meet for pizza later” to a folks when they came by to talk. I think everyone said yes, and we ended up with a crowd of… 18? 20? at Sammy’s in Eastport. It was a very cool spread across the spectrum: salted sailors, new cruisers, hopeful cruisers, all embracing life on the water.

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So many people came by: Sailing Banyan, OnwardWaves, Sail Loot, more. I loved introducing Lin’s books to people stopping by (because they are not only my dream fodder from our pre-cruising days, but books I keep on Totem and reference). The show was hard work: eight plus hours on our feet, on asphalt, outside. Did I mention the hurricane that threatened? We ended up with just wind and rain, but it was… well. Cold! Notice the multiple layers worn. I even had to break out SOCKS.

By the last day, we were getting a little punchy. Boat kid Naia and I listened for whales in our triton shell / paperweight.

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We cracked up with Lin, Jill and Sheryl over the absurdity of everyone checking their shell–I mean cell–phones all the time.

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We expected the show to wear us out, as it did. We anticipated meeting a lot of people. We just failed to appreciate how much fun it would be meeting up with old friends…some for the first time.

Totem is in Annapolis for about another week: we’re speaking about our travels at 4pm on Sunday, Oct 23, at the Loft above West Marine in Herrington Harbor North. RSVPs to the HH Sailing Association appreciated but not required: contact bev.wright@verizon.net. Oh, and it’s free!

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