Trials at sea and ashore: sailing from Colombia to Panama

Gentle ripples stream in the wake of an ulu as a lone paddler sets out in the gray light of early morning. By the time the sun has inched above the horizon, a dozen more dugout canoes have joined this one to fish the reef off Anachucuna village. Meandering to pass near Totem, fishermen offer a smile and greeting. By the time it’s light enough to see woodsmoke from kitchen fires hanging in a layer over thatched homes and to hear intermittent braying from a donkey on shore, the day is in full swing. Placid water and friendly faces are just what we need on our first morning in Panama after a trying series of hops from Colombia.

Departing Santa Marta on the 24th, Jamie steered downwind through challenging seas and wind from 25 gusting to 40 knots when a loud POP proclaimed a break in the steering cable. Steering from the helm was gone, but the autopilot still did the job. This a point we knew well from Seychelles in 2015: another cruising boat boat made much of steering failure drama, refusing to believe what Jamie told them – that they could probably still steer with autopilot.

Square‐faced breaking seas of 3 to 5 meters required steering, and what followed was an autopilot‐ driven trial shared by Niall and Jamie for nearly eight hours. “Plus ten degrees, plus ten degrees… minus 20, now!” Steering poorly meant a possible round‐up, not a good thing in these conditions. Steering well meant working the autopilot hard, risking gear failure. As a backup, Totem’s emergency tiller was in place as soon as steerage was in hand with the autopilot. We have a big rudder, so driving Totem by emergency tiller in those conditions would be like steering a loaded dump‐truck with the steering wheel removed. This was not a boring day!

The cause was a failed link in the chain portion of the steering cable. To enable repairs, we anchored that evening near Barranquilla: the same Barranquilla where three nights later a series of police station bombings began, killing at least five and injuring more than 40. Feverishly working to put a repair in place (Dyneema to the rescue again!), Jamie was interrupted by the arrival of marine police and a firm but friendly boarding. What followed was the most thorough search we’ve ever had, at least until the officer seemed to get bored; but meanwhile, most lockers were opened,even some headliner removed to peer into potential hiding spaces. Upon learning Mairen was 15, once officer lit up, exclaiming “Quinceañera!” (Latin American ritual celebrating female fifteenth birthdays, traditionally a presentation of her transition from child to woman) and with simple words and gestures, suggested he should be her boyfriend. The police vessel departure was a relief, but sleep did not come easily as every sound made me question the possibility of unwelcome visitors.

Day two saw the fix in place holding well. Again steep seas chased Totem to the southwest, but they abated by midday as we sailed in progressively sheltered waters. We heard from friends back in Santa Marta that we’d gotten out just in time, as 40 knot winds again blew just outside the marina! Our original plan had been to carry through overnight to Panama, but exhaustion from the prior day’s effort took a toll. The easy decision was turning into Cartagena’s Boca Chica, and anchoring overnight behind the stone fortifications of the 18th century Fort San Fernando to evaluate the steering repair and get a good nights’ sleep.

The following morning we felt sufficiently rested to continue overnight for the remaining 150 nautical miles. Our destination: Puerto Obaldia, a Panamanian pueblo just over the border from Colombia. Windspeed drops further in the lee of Colombia, although seas were still sloppy; eventually we fired up Totem’s Yanmar to make more comfortable and timely progress. It was important to arrive no later than mid‐morning, as advance information suggested that Puerto Obaldia’s exposure to swell made the anchorage difficult, and unsafe overnight. Clearance can take several hours, and departure by 2pm was necessary to reach the tranquil protection of Puerto Perme with decent light.

Our conditions in the anchorage were nearly untenable. The swell rolled in, waves stacked short and steep; Totem was hooked well enough but pitching uncomfortably. No conditions for launching the dinghy from our bow, much less successfully dropping the outboard on the back; instead I shuttled in with Utopia II, their dinghy more readily dropped from davits with a lightweight outboard.

All reports indicated the entire crew must go ashore here. We could not imagine leaving the boat unattended in these conditions: it was simply too dangerous. The police were our first line of clearance: without pleading the case too hard, I pointed out the plain truth of this problem. Thankfully officials allowed a single representative to complete clearance on behalf of our crews on Totem and Utopia II.

It’s a good thing we arrived around 8:00 in the morning, as it literally took right up until our self‐ imposed 2pm deadline to complete clearance and still reach a safe anchorage with daylight. There are three officials processing entry in Puerto Obaldia: military police, immigration, and port captain. At each step is a ponderous analog process of varying durations while details for the boat and crew are handwritten in a register or multi‐part forms (there were seven layers to the port captain’s). Had the process run smoothly, it would have taken between two and three hours. It took us about six. The snag: while waiting for Migracion to receive our visa registration number from some central authority, the internet connection went down. No registration number, no clearance. Andrew or I would periodically walk from the officina to where we could see the boats in the anchorage, and my stomach lurched right along with our vessels watching them buck in the waves.

Noon. No reply from Panama City, and now everything is closed for lunch. Andrew and I got lunch in the small restaurant across from Migracion. Soup, fried fish, plantain, rice, onion/tomato salad: four dollars of deliciousness! The proprietress locked up and left before we were finished, unconcerned that we hadn’t paid. I guess in a town with no roads out, she figured she’d catch up with us (we paid someone, who made our $2 change with the Migracion officers, and presumably later paid her).

We ticked closer to 2pm, and caught a break. The officials were humans first and bureaucrats second. They knew we needed to move; they didn’t have central approval. It was Saturday afternoon, and unlikely to come before Monday. So they gave us our passport stamps, exacting the promise that we’d follow up at the next available port with a Migracion office for the missing registration numbers. Gratefully we headed out to anchor in Puerto Perme, the placid anchorage from which to begin adventures in Panama’s semi‐independent indigenous province of Guna Yala.

Totem is in the disconnected eastern reaches of Guna Yala! This post is sent through a satellite connection. Pictures to follow when internet allows.

A cruising year: milestones and introspection from Totem’s 2017

Jamie looks back

Inspiration and gratitude flow from the mundane in an annual review of Totem’s year by the numbers. We’re serious about tracking data on Totem; Jamie can’t resist having fun with analysis (annual cheese consumption, anyone? After all, cheese provisioning data is vital on a boat with three hungry teenagers!). But pondering the data and events of 2017 he turned reflective. Read on for Jamie’s takeaways.

pinterest 2017 annualDistance traveled in 2017: 3,402 nm / 3,915 miles / 6,301 km (since 2008 – 47,095 nm / 54,196 miles / 87,220 km)

Countries/territories visited: 14 – USA, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, USVI, BVI, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, St Lucia, Grenada, St Vincent and Grenadines, Bonaire, Colombia

Best 24-hour run: 208 nm, Bonaire to Colombia

Nights anchored: 249 (68%), Docked – 65 (18%), Moored – 31 (8%), Hauled – 10 (3%), Passage – 10 (3%)

Shallowest anchorage: 6.08Ft / 1.85M (Totem’s draft + 1 inch) for 4 days at Thompson Bay, Long Island, Bahamas

Number of times worked on: Toilets – 8, Watermaker – 11, Outboard – 8, Rigging – 8

Number of flight takeoffs Jamie had during 3 trips away from Totem:  21 (thankfully also an equal number of landings!)

Best new food we’d never heard of: Mofongo con langosta!

Number of field trips: 21

Number of visitors on Totem: 322

Number of audio/video calls with coaching clients: 118

Shark species we swam with most often: nurse shark

Shark species we didn’t know we swam with until getting out of the water: tiger shark!!!

three boat teens

2017: probably the last full year all five of us are together on Totem.

Biggest surprise of the year: This is a tie between a good surprise, and a bad one. The bad one was discovering that underneath Totem’s bottom paint… there is no gelcoat! Apparently, it was peeled by a prior owner and the detail did not get passed in the sale. The good surprise was finding Rita. Behan has a handmade apron from Bequia, a piece of functional art found in a thrift store that she’s owned for about two decades. From the lettering “R WILLIAMS” stitched at the bottom, she set out to find the maker when we arrived in Bequia. Like searching for unicorns, I thought, but, surprise!

Hardest part of 2017: Hurricanes…

_DSC9297

The North Atlantic had 10 hurricanes, 6 of which were major (category 3 or higher). We were having a blast in Nanny Cay, BVI as Harvey rambled across the southern Caribbean, arcing northwest up into Texas. At the same time along the coast of Africa a tropical wave began moving westward. Forecast models had it likely going towards the northern Caribbean, so we got moving south. Martinique, where we were anchored, had potential storm force winds; to avoid them we sailed further south. St Lucia is about 230 miles below where Irma slammed into Barbuda, Sint Maarten, Tortola, and rest of the northern islands. We watched grey, streaky west-flowing clouds shift direction to the northeast. Very ominous! My log entry for that day reads, “Hurricane Irma, now cat 5, to make landfall in Leeward Islands tonight. It’s going to be bad bad…”

If you lived in Irma’s path, your world was turned upside down, lashed and smashed. Hurricane Jose was a threatening post-Irma bully that held everyone one edge but fortunately stayed out to sea. News and pictures trickling out from Irma’s destruction were unimaginably worse than my log notion. The day after Irma died, yet another tropical wave started westward across the Atlantic. This disturbance grew rapidly to tropical storm force, then Hurricane Maria. We hopped further south to Grenada. By no means a hurricane-free island, we watched Maria with intentions of shifting further south should the system stray our way. This cat 5 hurricane smacked Dominica, where we were 3 weeks before; and then Puerto Rico, where we were 6 weeks before.

Hiking near Portsmouth, Dominica, on a hillside denuded a few weeks later

Hiking near Portsmouth, Dominica, on a hillside denuded a few weeks later

We were close enough to see the atmosphere do strange things, while far away enough to feel only light winds and swell. The hard part was feeling for the friends we’d made in these, now, broken islands. A coaching client’s boat on the hard in St Martin was destroyed; another client’s boat in Tortola suffered moderate damage. A third coaching client was in the process of buying a boat called “No Worries;” it was later found sunk. We know new cruisers and very experienced cruisers whose boats were a total loss.

I admit to anger watching ShipTrack.com placing vessel AIS positions in insanely stupid places directly in the broad path of these forecast monsters. I shouted, “why are you there now!” as many boats and some people literally disappeared. People have commented to us, “it must have been so stressful dodging so many hurricanes.” It wasn’t. We had mobility and the benefit of timely decision thanks to the science of meteorology. Forecasts were not perfect, so add a margin for error. I am thankful for the easy mobility that so many people had little or none of.  Some boats weren’t ready to dash, some owners had other obligations. Islanders without means suffered deeply. We remember Sheldon Hamilton in Portsmouth, Dominica who traded his fresh fruit and interesting sea glass for our clothes and canned food. Sheldon lived in a shack on the beach and wore the same rags trading this time as we saw him in the year before.

Our year in review shows a some metrics and silliness. It was a good year for us, despite a few medical maladies. It was a nightmare year for many friends. Sheldon Hamilton didn’t have shit for opportunity before Maria. Now his home, village, and island are in ruin. Hurricane season is coming again… Sounds gloomy, right? But the message is… Get MOBILE! REBUILD better! LEANER! APPRECIATE what you have because even if it doesn’t seem great, it’s better than AFTER Irma, Maria, natural disasters, cancers, accidents, and clumsy dentists. Make a plan (as the South Africans say) to do what YOU dream of. Go _______________ (insert preferred form of transportation) and get out, whatever that means to you. Go to Dominica and to search for Sheldon Hamilton, Bequia to meet Rita, or search for your own unicorn.

Totem + Utopia kid crews - Bonaire

Totem + Utopia kid crews – Bonaire

A cruiser’s Thanksgiving: twists on tradition

_DSC2130

Harvest festivals are cross-cultural and found all over the world, but that held on the 4th Thursday of every November is uniquely American. Every family grows up with a variant, but there are themes — some make the leap to cruising, and others don’t.

Preparations for a celebration!

At home I’d probably have planned this well ahead after spending too much time on Pinterest. There may have been metallic spray paint involved, and centerpiece purchases. Yikes! Not anymore! Instead, there was a collaborative, and somewhat last-minute, streamer of watercolor “leaves” standing in as an afternoon craft activity with the kids…strung up to announce “Happy Thanksgiving!” to all who step into Totem’s main cabin…you can kinda see it, at the top picture.

getting crafty

Gathering with family

These are the biggest domestic travel days of the year, as people flock home. I do miss our family gatherings and can’t wait to have a reunion with friends and family in the US next summer. I remember our last Thanksgiving at home on Bainbridge, and think of how much we’d like to be there to raise a glass with the Pecoes & Denlingers now. I think of the great family gatherings up in Bellingham with my extended family. Anyone who saw our video on Business Insider this week knows that the hardest part of cruising, for me, is missing these people we love! And while it’s best to be in person, we had some heartfelt conversations with folks at home for the holiday. Hearing voices- and seeing pixelated faces over Facebook and Facetime and Skype- was pretty sweet.

So happy to see family - thanks for the screenshot Glenna!

So happy to see family – thanks for the screenshot Glenna!

Our relatives may be far away, but found family plays a big part in our lives, as it does for many cruisers (as well as folks less itinerant than we are). For us, sharing the Thankgiving holiday with our Australian friends was perfect. An excuse to raft up the boats on a calm day, where the kids could run back and forth, dishes were easily passed, and when the evening was over – no dinghy ride in the dark! These wonderful humans are part of our found family.

Rafting up with Utopia II

Rafting up with Utopia II

Sharing a feast

In places where cruisers gather, big potlucks happen, and they can be a lot of fun. There may not have been a quorum of Americans here in Martinique, but for us, focusing inward with close friends instead of outward in the community was perfect. But STILL the potluck aspect of meal-sharing is part of the holiday. Instead of cooking up a special dish to bring to share with aunts and cousins, our friends balanced our high-carb traditions with vegetable sides and brought Brazilian champagne and the last of their South African red to wash it down.

kids at the table

Much of what we had mirrored traditions from home. I’ve yet to find canned pumpkin outside the US (save the rare sighting at an expat-oriented shop) but the squash is plentiful in the tropics. Here in this little piece of France in the Caribbean the bread for our stuffing came from baguettes, naturellement! The big score: finding a WHOLE turkey, and FRESH cranberries. Unreal. That’s a first. The turkey was roasted primarily in our awesome Solavore solar oven, then finished down below for a nice crispy skin.

Prepped for the solar oven: it almost fit in the pan

Prepped for the solar oven: it almost fit in the pan

Max and Mairen make pie

 

Football! The Macy’s Parade!

Are football and the Macy’s parade just a way to pass the time with the a soundtrack on in the background? I don’t really miss the former tradition and we never partook of the latter. But one that’s stayed with us is listening to Arlo Guthrie’s classic, Alice’s Restaurant Masacree, and I absolutely treat it like a background soundtrack on Thanksgiving. I think I tallied up three full rounds of the 18+ minute song and love introducing our Aussie friends to it. Besides, railing about idiocy found in bureaucracy feels more relevant than ever.

football sorta

We might have tossed a football around in the yard before. So why not toss a ball around in the anchorage? We picked up a cheap inflatable, good for hours of fun as the kids swam behind our rafted boats. As the sun set, we told stories, watched boats ghost across the bay, and listened to music.

_DSC2110_DSC2108

 

Giving Thanks

However you express it: at the core, this holiday celebrates our capacity for gratitude. I feel it every day. OK, ALMOST. There was that bad day coming up from the Grenadines recently that involved a trifecta of busted headsail furler, overflowing head, overheating engine “fun” which was categorically not one I’d like to repeat. But that we could even HAVE that day, here in the beautiful Caribbean, with our family together? I am thankful for so many things. Gifted from friends is this book; it’s really titled House Blessings, but our salty friends re-christened it Boat Blessings, and Lynne re-worked selections to make them perfect on board. Niall read the Thanksgiving passage, and it was perfect. (Missing the Cortado crew now.)

house blessings

Holiday shopping

The tradition that immediately follows Thanksgiving, and based on signs all over Martinique seems to have gained global status beyond the US borders, is Black Friday. With the Thanksgiving holiday behind us we’re free to… BUY BUY BUY! SHOP FOR CHRISTMAS! BUY MORE!

Or not. You can #OptOutside. We’re off to play dominoes on a friend’s boat. And wow, but I do not miss this side of the season, and am happy not to have heard a Christmas carol through tinny speakers. Give me a few days for that! Still, as a family on a wee little income, I know the temptation to splash out on the post-Thanksgiving sales. Especially if you’re feeling a little sluggish after that big holiday meal and can get ‘er done in front of the computer! Watch this space for a guide of boaty/cruiser gift ideas next week…and for those who can’t wait, I get it! And I’d be immensely grateful if you’d find your deals if shop on Amazon by clicking through here, as it will send our family a tip without changing the cost of your cart. We’ll be thankful for you.

Totem cockpit on Thanksgiving

Totem crew is in Martinique, getting ready to head to the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao… OK maybe we’ll skip Aruba) in the next week or so on our path towards Panama and a return to the Pacific Ocean.

 

Awesome Ted: the best of cruiser culture

Ted and Claudia in the tender Hades

Friendly, supportive, egalitarian. The cruising community has a subculture all its own: we tend to know each other faster and deeper. Cruising really is all about the people you meet, and this culture is a big part of the reason why. There are standouts, like our friends Ted and Claudia pictured above, and their cool kids Max and Anya. They live aboard Demeter in Tortola. Right, Tortola, one of the islands that took a whack this hurricane season! We’re thinking of them especially today because it’s Claudia’s birthday. Read on for their story and the aftermath,  for a peek into the best of cruising culture as modeled by Ted, and raise your virtual glass with me to wish Claudia a happy birthday. Our crew can’t wait till the day we get to share an anchorage with the Demeter again.

In the waning days of August, a band of volatile weather pushed away from Africa. Storm seeds fertilized by warm Atlantic water. Organic projectile, growing violent. To the west 2,600 miles, Totem was anchored by Dominica, an island nation in the Lesser Antilles. These are the eastern islands of the Caribbean, which coincidentally, the bullseye that organic projectiles… That hurricanes, meander to. Nomadic Totem, paused at the crossroads fight and flight, was soon underway. Most people living ON the target, don’t have a choice.

To the north, all mud and crab pots, it’s a wonder that boating’s even possible in Chesapeake Bay. Yet, the bay’s natural beauty and just enough water to fly over, cultivates many a keen-eyed sailor. Running afoul of the bottom or a pot line, is a minor distraction. Bug splat on a car window. It’s Chesapeake’s picturesque creeks and lush, craggy edges with whispering ghosts that draw out sailor’s wanderlust, and sends them over the horizon.

Sailor Ted is from the Chesapeake Bay. With his wife, awesome Claudia and their two children, they sailed south to the tropics. Their home is a Wauquiez Amphitrite 43 named Demeter, for the Greek goddess of harvest and agriculture. After Caribbean cruising for a while the family paused in Nanny Cay, Tortola, British Virgin Islands (BVI). Could there be a better place than this past pirate paradise to replenish the family treasure?

Demeter's sistership, Ganesh, has been anchored near Totem for most of our stay in Grenada

Demeter’s sistership, Ganesh, has been anchored near Totem for most of our stay in Grenada

Tortola is just ten miles long, by three and a half wide, but it’s a powerhouse of boating activities. A charter captain, another paused cruiser living aboard, told us that The Moorings fleet alone has over 1000 boats. Add to that other charter companies and cruisers that flock there, and there is a whole lot of boating going on! To support this there is a correspondingly big marine infrastructure of marinas, chandlers, yacht brokers, surveyors, yacht management services and all manner of boat shops. Tortola is a modern-day version of Nantucket, during the time of whalers. Our Chesapeake sailor friend, talented Ted, was soon managing the Yamaha and AB Inflatables dealership.

Sundowners on the north coast of Tortola- Jamie, Max, Claudia, Ted

Sundowners on the north coast of Tortola- Jamie, Max, Claudia, Ted

Sixteen days before Irma became a named storm, Totem arrived in Tortola. Hurricane Gert was at category 2 strength and forecast to be a close but safe pass by the BVIs. Forecast is not fact. Generous Ted offered his marina slip to Totem as Demeter was hauled out. Handyman Ted recently finished removing the old teak deck, so Demeter was out for a topsides paint job. Passing three hundred miles south, and no concern for Tortola was tropical depression Harvey, on the way to powerful right hook into Texas.

From Demeter’s slip, we watched Gert slip past with barely any bluster. Totem and Demeter kids were fast friends; there were sleepovers. Facilitator Ted organized sailboat racing in modified J24s. Behan and I crewed and the kids did race committee. Tour guide Ted drove us around the island, showing us favorite spots. Adventure Ted took us out in his fast RIB, named Hades, to snorkel nearby islands. Salesman Ted helped us buy a new dinghy. And when salesman Ted stepped out, generous Ted wouldn’t take payment to let his shop mechanic service our sputtering outboard. Spectator Ted joined us to observe the solar eclipse using our sextant. Social Ted introduced us to yachty-types hanging around off-season. Near as we could tell, Ted knew everyone in Tortola.

Demeter kids with the Totem girls, eclipse-spotting at Nanny Cay

Demeter kids with the Totem girls, eclipse-spotting at Nanny Cay

Being nomadic means saying goodbye. BVI was beautiful and fun, but we were late to get away from hurricane alley. Hours before departure, and Gert safely past, two guys showed up to clean Totem’s bottom. I said they had the wrong boat. “No”, they said, Claudia and over-the-top Ted were giving us a going away gift. Land people probably don’t get this, but there is nothing more endearing to fellow sailors than the gift of a clean bottom.

Broadcaster Ted, shared storm forecasts from sources that we didn’t know about. Over a few days and 330 miles, Totem hopped to Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Martinique. Back in Tortola, work on Demeter finished up. She was launched and secured back in her slip. At this time, a spark captured the attention of Chesapeake Ted, Totem’s crew, the charter captains, baguette bakers, and just about everyone in the northern Caribbean. Named storm Irma became a category 3 hurricane overnight. Angry Irma was aiming at likeable Ted and his many friends.

Demeter with the family aboard. thanks Laury Marshall Parramore for the photo!

Demeter with the family aboard. thanks Laury Marshall Parramore for the photo!

Later, when Irma was past the Caribbean on the way to Florida, many Floridians were issued a mandatory evacuation. Flight. As Irma approached the Caribbean, there was but one option – stay and fight. Thousands across the islands began preparing. Responsible Ted prepared his family, his home, and his workplace.

Preparing for a regular, normal, typical hurricane is work, and play. Removing sails and biminis or boarding up windows is physical effort with a due-by date. There’s no time to dawdle. Seeing neighbors going through the same efforts, brings comradery and excitement. Preparing for Irma, approaching as a category 5 hurricane with massive diameter, was not normal.

Irma’s winds sustained at 185 mph, with higher gusts. Forecasts suggested Martinique could get storm force winds to 50 knots. We wanted less, so had an easy sail a little further south to St Lucia. Tired Ted and everyone else up north was working to procure food and water; to secure their possessions. Rigger Ted posted pictures of Demeter being prepared with lines spider webbed to the dock, anchors set, and extra fenders in place. Everyone with a boat in a hurricane knows that your boat is only as safe as the least prepared boat in the bay. One breakaway can take out ten boats in its path. Exhausted Ted posted that they’d done everything they could to prepare. Messages of support and encouragement came pouring in. Fatty Goodlander in Grenada, and the fine people from ‘On The Wind’ Podcast in Sweden, and other sailors in far corners of the world wished hopeful Ted and Claudia the best of luck. Popular Ted didn’t just know everyone in Tortola, he knows everyone.

The world seems a pretty big place from the deck of a sailboat. You can’t even see to the other side! Knowing Irma was going to hurt conjured up a collective presence. People cared. The world shrank. Just before midnight on September 5th, Irma blasted the tiny island of Barbuda.

We were riveted to watching weather station reporting real-time winds. 100 knots. 130 knots. Silence… One by one, the stations went offline. Overhead, grey sky and clouds moving northeast towards monster Irma; a local guy whistled and said, “when clouds goin dat way, gonna to be a big storm mon.” We knew Irma’s wrath was in full spin. Prudent Ted and family were in a safe place on shore. Demeter was on her own. Totem, in St. Lucia, had maximum sustained winds of 15 knots, with a peak gust to 29.  We had options. We are so lucky to have options.

Maybe you’ve seen photos trickling out from Irma’s Caribbean rage. The one of Paraquita Bay, a “hurricane hole” we passed two weeks before, with a fleet of shiny white boats crushed and flipped on top of each other. The one of Nanny Cay: boats and docks, smashed. News was slow to emerge. Snippets only. Devastation to property, people, and nature. What of the friends and people that touched us? What of battered Ted and his family? A boat I evaluated a few weeks prior for a perspective buyer was sunk. The charter captain that sized up the Moorings fleet, lost his boat. What little news there was, was bad.

It’s now eight days later.* Communication, like food, water, and safety is tenuous in Tortola. Worse still in St. Martin, were people are desperate and some violent. The entire population of Barbuda was evacuated. The news cycle that is so influential to our beliefs, has moved on. There’s another story, somewhere else. The world is no longer small. That moment passed, again.

Survivor Ted and family made it. I have a slow speed text exchange going on with reporter Ted. I ask a question, the next day a few sentences come back. Manager Ted became safety Ted, now as head of security for the marina complex. “Are you safe Ted”, I messaged? Texting Ted replied this morning with, “Yes, lots of evac[uations] happening. With Royal marines and Marshall Law, things are pretty stable”. Reality Ted went on to say that the schools are destroyed. He and Claudia will get the kids to the US, to family by the Chesapeake Bay, and back in school.

Hauling out after the hurricanes - scratched but unbroken. Ted Reshetiloff photo

Hauling out after the hurricanes – scratched but unbroken. Ted Reshetiloff photo

Among all that was lost, Demeter was found with only superficial damage. The new paint work is unblemished.

Claudia and reconstruction Ted will stay in Nanny Cay, to help make their community right again. Irma is a painful memory. More volatile weather is crossing the Atlantic. Totem is safely in Grenada. Resolute Ted is on the job.

BVIs coming BACK FAST! Ted took this picture just a few days ago. This season is ON!

BVIs coming BACK FAST! Ted took this picture just a few days ago. This season is ON!

*Jamie wrote this in September; it ran in the October issue of 48 North, the boating magazine of our home waters in the Pacific Northwest that tolerates our cruiser ramblings. Totem is northbound toward St Vincent & the Grenadines next week, hurricane season waning and our time in the Caribbean beginning to count down before next years return to the Pacific.

The power of the tribe

boat show Setup Carolyn and Lin

It’s barely 24 hours since I returned to Totem, rocking at anchor in Grenada. For nearly two weeks I was stateside, away from Jamie and the kids for what’s popularly known as “the Annapolis Boat Show.” The US Sailboat Show draws boaters from all over, and owns a reputation as THE show in north America. Two main roles filled my time at the event: for the first four days of the show, supporting legendary circumnavigator Lin Pardey in her booth, promoting the books she’s published (including Voyaging With Kids). Then, for four days I gave seminars at Cruisers U, working to inspire and educate gonna-go cruisers at the Naval Academy’s elegant Officers Club. Tucked between: a seminar and panel for Cruising World magazine.

Cruising World panel: Dave Gillespie, Wally Moran, Brittany Meyers, Diana Emmanuelli, and moi

Cruising World panel: Dave Gillespie, Wally Moran, Brittany Meyers, Diana Emmanuelli, and moi

Not gonna lie: this was series of long days without a break, a schedule that takes momentum to carry through. By necessity, my personal energy switch was flipped to “on” for the duration, from morning starts through evening events after the show closed for the day. On my feet most of the time, whether it was in the booth or in front of a classroom, there are a host of reasons this should have been exhausting. I dialed back on evening fun in the interest of self-preservation so I could hit the next day running: I worried about being able to get through on a high note.

As it turned out, there was a positive feedback loop at the show that kept me running. It feels so good to be among the tribe of people who “get it” – the fellow sailors who are, have, or aspire to take off and explore the world afloat. In fact, there was SO MUCH positive energy in this event that the only thing physically exhausted in its wake are my cheeks, which ache from so much smiling. Sharing my enthusiasm for cruising, passing that to others, feeds my soul.

Smiles and hugs booth

Lin’s booth was an all-star team of mostly-estrogen-powered fun. The open smile from past/future cruiser Nica Waters, my very good friend (and fellow admin at Women Who Sail), and open arms of The Boat Galley’s awesome Carolyn Shearlock got us dubbed the “smiles and hugs” booth thanks to the warm reception to visitors stopping by. We simply could not resist! All cruising questions answered, to the best of our breadth and depth.

Lin, Nica, me and Carolyn

Lin, Nica, me and Carolyn

Local sailor Craig was our rock, the guy who ducked back after hours to protect books when rain threatened (and knew exactly which pub to go for dinner nearby, and where to find Real Coffee). Together we made an indefatigable team.

Craig and Behan

What a joy to see the reactions and expressions people who have read Lin’s tales of her multi-circumnavigations over the years finally meet their hero. Meeting up with readers of the Sailing Totem blog and families who have been inspired by Voyaging With Kids gave me tremendous pleasure as well. It’s invigorating to share my enthusiasm for what we’ve done with people who may feel that their path towards cruising is ponderous or distant…to revive their conviction that all the planning, all the anticipation, are worth the time and effort…or those who just need a nudge of positive reinforcement.

And then there were the awesome humans like the Flora family, who came by with their three kids to talk about bluewater plans – and seeing how busy things were, came back to hand us lunch. Laurie & Alex, you are the  reason we ate on Friday afternoon, thank you!

Laurie and Alex Flora

Over the top were the Sailing Totem readers who showed up flying the colors: wearing our crew t-shirts at the show! I cannot tell you how very happy it made me to see them popping up around the show (one wearer, John from SV Last Chance, laughed with me saying “people keep asking me if I’m Jamie!”).

tshirt page

(These shirts are awesomely soft, comfy organic cotton—order them online here and send us a pic!)

Connecting with the show’s importance

In the stretch leading up to this journey I wasn’t the best partner or parent. Glued to my laptop preparing or refining presentations, making sure I was ready for the various seminars and panels where I’d speak, I didn’t have a lot of time for my family. In the middle of this stretch of work, one of our coaching clients wanted to know: is it worthwhile to attend the show? I couched my response in terms of the pros/cons: outlay to attend, vs value derived – a cold look at the tradeoffs, as we try to offer a balanced view with all coaching questions. Possibly due to the weight of prep, I was less positive than I might have been. That was wrong (sorry Jason, sorry Terry!).

John Mahowald - SV Last Chance

In the wake of a stimulating trip comes fresh appreciation for the true value of the show, for two reasons. First, it is communing with the cruising tribe. I AM ACCUSTOMED to the company of cruisers. Of course, right? But I remember all too well how the years leading up to our departure were most challenging when we felt disconnected from this particular band of humans. Staying in touch with the mutual love we have blended from wanderlust and water affinity that prompts us to set sail. It’s important to nurture, when you have a wait until you can cast off. In Annapolis, you are surrounded by your people, and at the US Sailboat show, the energy of this tribe boosts dreams into plans and realities.

With the unstoppable Pam Wall: my partner in the two-day Cruising Women seminar

With the unstoppable Pam Wall: my partner in the two-day Cruising Women seminar

Second, the opportunity to access tremendous expertise. Friend and longtime maritime world denizen, Bill Parlatore, asked recently (paraphrasing): why are people willing to ask important questions online, and then accept bad advice in responses from total strangers? (This, by the way, is a major reason why we offer coaching services to help people go cruising!). The Annapolis boat show, and seminar series in particular, is an excellent place to learn from people with real, relevant experience. People who have been there / done that and aren’t just hiding behind a screen, feeding a psychological need to be heard instead of actually being useful. They include subject matter experts, and range from legends like Jimmy Cornell and Nigel Calder to champions of the voyaging future like 59 North’s Andy & Mia. (Pinch me, I still can’t believe I’m on that roster?!).

Yes, it’s costly to go when you’re not local and have to book flights and accommodations on top of entry fees, and that has to be weighed. But the quality of information to be gleaned must be counted in addition to the intangible value in connecting with the tribe of fellow boaters WHO GET IT is tremendous.

THIS is why the trip did not flatten me: the cruising community’s cultural bias towards mutual support. The positivity in this knowledge sharing to promote a lifestyle that I believe—in my heart of hearts—makes the world a better place, well…it’s uplifting, and a boost instead of a drain.

Catching up with friends

On the edge of the show schedule were many happy reunions. The crews of FIVE boats–and even some of the boats!–that we knew mainly from Southeast Asia were in Annapolis: the happy chance to reconnect some years after we last shared an anchorage (besos to Rutea, Solstice, Kite, Camomile, and Hokule’a!). A memorable evening with one of our readers-turned-friends-turned-found family (John, I am so grateful to have you in our lives.). Catching up on life over the best pork ribs ever with local sailors we met last year. In what has become an annual event, my dear friend Cindy and her family—cruisers and long time Annapolis liveaboards—hosted an evening at their marina, feeding and watering and sharing friendship among this yearly circle of sailors. Another two-years-running-let’s-call-it-annual pizza night with couples and families Jamie and I work with as cruising coaches, put real humans to the Skype/Facetime relationships.

It is a great feeling helping people make their cruising dreams a reality!

It is a great feeling helping people make their cruising dreams a reality!

The admin team for Women Who Sail is TIGHT. We back each other up and mind-meld while moderating a group of about 13,000 women boaters. Having three of us together in one place? Priceless. Meeting dozens of other WWS members on the roof of Pussers? Unforgettable and heck yeah we’ll keep doing that every year!

With fellow admins Anne and Nica - I love these women! - and a host of WWS members

With fellow admins Anne and Nica – I love these women! – and a host of WWS members

Yes, I've been waiting a long time to meet awesome captain / ASA instructor Angie Wilson.

Yes, I’ve been waiting a long time to meet awesome captain / ASA instructor Angie Wilson.

Some of the old friends were actually first time in-person meets. Michael Robertson, one of my two co-authors for Voyaging With Kids, who I met for the very first time (I still need to meet Sara!). That’s right– I HAD NEVER MET MY CO-AUTHORS. We wrote that book entirely though email and Dropbox! And then– despite years of contact, and connection as fellow boat mamas, the show was the first time meeting Brittany Meyers (Windtraveler). We had an “almost meet” in Thailand a few years ago with Tasha Hacker (Chase the Story), who like Brittany was just so good to put hands on, and look in the eyes, and… shriek and laugh and generally revel in finally meeting up!

Behan- Brittany- Gretchen- Tasha annapolis 2017

It’s the sum of so much kindness of friends old and new. Booth delivery of the obligatory Painkiller (Mary Marie, would you believe that’s the only one I had the whole time?!) and gifts to bring back for our kids (you know who you are – xoxo!), and… well, ….this. Jamie posted to our Facebook page that he’d purchased a new top-loading washing machine in my absence (in shiny white, replacing the deteriorating blue model)…these fantastic readers couldn’t resist showing up at the booth with an improved plunger, designed specifically for agitating bucket laundry. Cracked me right up! The kids thank you!

boat show plunger - with inset- jen brett

Homeward bound

I gave myself a break on the way home. There was probably a faster way, but sleeping in and spending a gentle morning with the very special “found family” I have on SV Majestic… then flying to Florida for another night with two girlfriends in Miami… well. This was the restorative, high-JdS+Cover+Smallenergy-optional respite I needed to come down from the high of the show. As much as I thrive on sharing my enthusiasm, the break to relax in the company of friends who let me be my sometimes messy self was the necessary balm.

Casualty of an overfull mind, I left my Kindle behind in Miami. I thought I’d save this book (kindly inscribed by the author at the show) until back aboard Totem. Instead, Jean-du-Sud and the Magick Byrd, Yves Gelinas’ page turner—a memoir in the vein of Moitessier —carried me over the Caribbean sea, lost in the story of his southern ocean travails while he completed a solo circumnavigation. (Finally available in English, it’s just been published by 59 North: find it on their website, or get a Kindle edition from Amazon)

I read on the plane, watching the familiar shapes of Bahamian islands drift below, letting the many positive experiences of the trip sink in. For all the reasons above, and for many other little joys in the everyday that come from shifting our scenery and rhythm. Like the awesome Lyft driver, Edmund, who made such good company the first day I finagled to book him the rest of my stay. The maternal West Indian woman who fed me vegetables from her in-flight meal (mine didn’t look nutritious enough) will telling stories of her scattered family. The unexpected meet with future cruisers in what were otherwise cold over-chilled empty spaces in the airport lounge.

At some point I wondered if we’d be making it back to future shows but with fresh hindsight, I can’t imagine missing now. Jamie and I are already working out where we’ll be and which airport to fly from and can’t wait to be back next year.

In Miami with Kerry (ThumbsUp International) and Patty (Voyage into Healing)

In Miami with Kerry (ThumbsUp International) and Patty (Voyage into Healing)

You know you're with your tribe when they pick you up in a dinghy

You know you’re with your tribe when they pick you up in a dinghy

Two oceans of friendship, and counting

Two oceans of friendship, and counting

zach liz stineSailing Women rock- Galway pub

"As seen" at the boat show

“As seen” at the boat show

Hurricane Maria watch: real-time weather

MtHartman

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

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

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

What’s the wind doing?

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

WindAlert wind Maria caribbean

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

Windfinder airport weather station

What’s the system doing?

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

Accuweather radar Maria caribbean

What are the boats doing?

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

MarineTraffic AIS Maria caribbean

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

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

Looking across Prince Rupert Bay at Portsmouth, Dominica

Looking across Prince Rupert Bay at Portsmouth, Dominica

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

_DSC9399

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

_DSC9792

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

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

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

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

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

Hurricane Irma: sailing to safety, how you can help

Totem in Rodney Bay for Irma

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

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

One of the early images circulating on social media

One of the early images circulating on social media

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

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

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

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

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

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

sailors helping

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

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

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

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

hurricane irma bvi relief

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

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

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

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August

Drone flight we made over Nanny Cay, late August

Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

Nanny Cay at nearly the same angle, post-Irma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma

Moved to the intact outer marina, post-Irma

Facing up to health care

_DSC8029

Keeping up with routine health care needs isn’t a problem when cruising. It’s rare to be in a place where quality care cannot be found, or reached quickly should an emergency arise. In Puerto Rico we played catch up with dentist and dermatology checkups.

Pinterest health careWe arrived in Puerto Rico expecting to hop-skip-jump across the south coast, continuing (we hoped) to blast our way east to the BVIs, then make southbound tracks to Grenada. In the landfall of Puerto Real, Marina Pescadería’s owner/manager, Jose Mendez, welcomed us like old friends. He had already arranged service from an outboard mechanic we asked after via email, and walked us through extensive recommendations to make the most of a short stay: beaches, restaurants, shops, services. Goodbyes with the Akira crew (their kids with our girls, above) was the only down side of our stop. Everything was easy with Jose’s help, and any concern we had about muddling through a few tasks with our lapsed Spanish evaporated.

But even just a few days is enough to work in a dental checkup, and the whole crew was overdue; Jose booked us an appointment with a recommended dentist in nearby Mayaguez. Dental care has been particularly easy to meet while cruising: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, is the latest on our Dentist Around the World tour (Mexico…Australia…Malaysia…Seychelles…St. Martin…Puerto Rico).

All five Totem crew had teeth cleaned by a hygienist and checked by the dentist; two earned bonus sealant treatment, and xrays confirmed Niall’s wisdom teeth have to go…that comes later. Excellent care, nice facility, US board certified dentist…total bill, $300. A bargain, yet at the higher end of what we’ve paid along the way for routine dental care (the exception was Australia, which had prices similar to the US mainland).

Eastbound along Puerto Rico’s south coast, Totem’s engine overheated: the first sign that plans for a speedy trip to the Virgin Islands would be thwarted. Diverting to the port of Ponce, we called Jose for a recommendation. No problem! Despite the fact it was late afternoon on Friday, a couple of hours later Jose’s preferred diesel mechanic, Cesar, was sitting in Totem’s cockpit at 5:30pm sharing his ideas for troubleshooting.

Anticipating a week to deal with what we presumed to be a failing heat exchanger meant enough time to tick another health care item off the list – Jamie and I were due to see a derm, something we try to do annually. A few days later what we hoped to be a routine pass through a highly recommended clinic in Ponce…wasn’t so routine after all.

Jamie’s had a couple of troublesome spots on his face (treated by derms in Malaysia and South Africa); Drs. Villa and Sanchez didn’t like them a bit. My galaxy of freckles and moles turned up a few more suspect spots. Five biopsies, dozens of stitches, and a skin graft later: we are fine, but Jamie had both basal cell and squamous carcinomas on his face (my dysplastic nevi were just that: misbehaving cells, nipped before becoming problematic).

Dr Santaliz sutures Jamie while Dr Villa looks on

Dr Santaliz sutures Jamie while Dr Villa looks on

Most were done in Dr Villa’s clinic, but he felt the carcinoma on Jamie’s nose was best handled by Mohs surgery. With a phone call to his friend in San Juan, we were fit in for 10:00 the following morning—the doctor’s last day in the office before a family vacation (to go sailing in the BVIs, as it happened!).

All told, we had four office appointments; these appointments ran as long as Jamie’s three-hour adventure in the Mohs clinic, which required three passes (and an olive-sized divot) at tissue on his nose before the cell margins were pronounced clean. And then, there was a “house call” when Dr Villa came see us in Salinas (we moved to this sweet little anchorage, more cruiser-friendly and affordable than Ponce) and removed his stitches en plein air…and bring us mangoes from the tree in his garden. When was the last time you heard of a doctor doing house calls?

Healing well, one week after the skin graft

Healing well, one week after the skin graft

All told, the dermatology adventure took a few weeks and cost a freckle under $4,000. It’s a chunk but we can deal (hey, anybody need a quote for a new sail from Jamie?). If you’d like to know more, this post details how we approach medical costs and insurance (cliff notes: catastrophic coverage to avoid financial devastation from a major event, and all routine care paid out of pocket).

The sun exposure we get from cruising clearly doesn’t help our situation here, but everyday exposure now isn’t the primary problem. The reality is that Jamie and I are experiencing this not so much because of cruising, but because of a combination of genetic factors and childhood sun exposure. OUR kids benefit from sunscreen; we spent our childhood summers outside before SPF was an acronym anyone knew. A dermatologist checking me, years ago, said we should give up on plans to take off on a sailboat. Well, no. But we can be careful and thoughtful about protecting ourselves from the sun. I’ve written about sun protection while cruising, and the advice is unchanged.

If there is a single takeaway from our health care adventures in Puerto Rico, it’s this: that quality care is available away from the comfortable range of home. If I can press a second point, it’s that care is generally quite affordable. It may not always be cheap, but along our travels–and a working annual budget that puts us below the poverty line in the USA–it is manageable, and strengthened a sidelong view on the insanity of insurance rates and medical costs in the US.

Meanwhile, our quick pass through Puerto Rico easily became a month. That’s fine. Sure, it’s added some stress as the hurricane season heats up, and a progressively growing series of “waves” off Africa trying to spin up into Caribbean hurricanes. That, too, has slowed progress as we take the prudent steps to remain near hurricane holes instead of pressing forward regardless. But taking care of health was the priority, and along the way it enabled myriad experiences by spending more time in Puerto Rico…

…like enjoying beautiful vistas from the mountains to the sea while driving to the dermatologist outside San Juan.

mountain vista puerto rico

A rental car to get to doctor’s appointments provided easier day tripping to explore the history in Old San Juan…

castillo san juan

Niall offers scale for the fort's walls

Niall offers scale for the fort’s walls

girls at fort wall

…to visit the breathtaking, and imminently approachable, Ponce museum…

Shoes required

Shoes required

…to find out of the way cafés, and indulge in a survey of pressed sandwiches (the best: at El Balcon del Coliseo in Ponce…WOW); recommendations from the doctors for the best roast pork, and a detour through the central ridge to find the perfect place to enjoy it.

IMG_20170708_140310463

tripleta sandwich

Meanwhile, here we are about a month later, and you have to look up close to know Jamie’s had a hunk taken out of his nose.

_DSC8842

Want to learn more about health care or other hot topics for cruising? In October, I’ll be at the US Sailboat Show in Annapolis—talking formally and informally to anyone with interest and time about their cruising questions! One of my six seminars at Cruisers U is specifically about health care, and will dive into much more detail than this post can cover.

  • October 5-8: staffing the booth at L&L Pardey Books, signing copies of Voyaging With Kids and telling anyone who will listen how inspiring Lin’s books are.
  • October 6: Cruising World Workshop: Prepare to Cast Off (register here)
  • October 9-10: Cruising Women seminar (part of Cruisers U): two full days, including a morning spent aboard a boat.
  • October 11-12: Cruisers U: delivering seminars on a half dozen topics –including health care! Also: on-board communication tools (satellite and radio), passagemaking, common new cruiser errors, dollars & sense (cruise budgeting), and more.
  • Fee for show entry; additional fees/registration for seminars. For more information see the Annapolis Boat Show website. Let me know if I’ll see you there!

Beautiful everyday Bahamas

sailboat in clear blue water

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

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

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

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

_DSC7464

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

_DSC7426 _DSC7415

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

_DSC7527

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

_DSC7508

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

beach days

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

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0035.JPG

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

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

DCIM104GOPROG0106036.JPG

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

_DSC7489

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

_DSC7022

Archetypical Bahamas, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

3- beach gathering

Sailboat 50 50 underwater photo Bahamas clear blue water

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

6- Pirate beach view 3b- float toy 3c- what could possibly go wrong

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

5- vessel relics hang over the potluck buffet

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

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

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

7b Mexican train dominoes beach

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

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

pig girls beach bahamas

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

swimming pig bahamas

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

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

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

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

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

12 Us-ie with Selah and Ruby Rose

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

dinghy sailboat thunderclouds

Speeding their way to hang out with other teens on Allegro

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

beach sunset

Teen conversation circle on the beach

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

kids dinghy exumas bahamas

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

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

cave swimming stalactites swimming

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

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

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

17-