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).

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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

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

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

beach days

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

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

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

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

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

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Archetypical Bahamas, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sailboat 50 50 underwater photo Bahamas clear blue water

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

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

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

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Speeding their way to hang out with other teens on Allegro

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

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Teen conversation circle on the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poised for the Bahamas

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“I hear you’re putting Totem on the hard.” “Will you go out again?” In fact, we have no plans to park Totem for an extended stay on land (or in the water), and have never considered remaining in the US. But given the dearth of information in this space about what 2017 holds I can understand the speculation. We are on the cusp of departure and thrilled to be heading out for more adventures afloat.

Cascading events prolonged our departure, but the boat’s been humming, and legged out timing has shaped our direction. Routing clarity comes slowly after many shuffles on how we’ll fill the gaps between now (in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) and a year from now  (Pacific Ocean, via Panama Canal). It still has a lot of squiggles and question marks, but the bigger picture should stick.

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For many months, that year-long view was literally nothing more than get out of the US and back to the islands, spend a couple of months in Cuba, and explore Panama’s Guna Yala. (Remember that Plan is a four-letter word for cruisers! Corollary: Thar Be No Schedules)

We’d written the Bahamas off, but they’re now solidly ON, and their late arrival means I’m scrambling for information. Friday I got our Waterway Guide’s Bahamas, Turks & Caicos book. IT’S GORGEOUS. The last years of Western Pacific / Indian Ocean / Southern Atlantic sailing had poor guides, if any, and it put me off. What did exist covered too wide an area to be useful, so I stuck to travel guides instead and started thinking cruising guides weren’t important. You know what? They’re incredibly useful, I’d just been too long without an example of what a good guide offers. So with 2017 Bahamas edition in hand, instead of helping Jamie and the girls scrub the hull that morning, I did this:

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I did also buy a traveler’s guidebook for the Bahamas. I’m probably going to leave it behind, because the Waterway book is better, and has everything I need: the travel guide insights (cultural orientation,  things to bring, cool places to visit) AND annually updated cruising data (what to bring and where to provision, details for moorings and choice anchorages, the latest marina info– even updates on impacts from last fall’s hurricane, and recommendations for things islanders might need that we can ferry over).

Although schedules are the bane of cruising, I’ve happily added a fixed Must Be There date by signing on to present at the US Boat Show in Annapolis in April. Pam Wall and I will lead a 2-day Cruising Women seminar, and I’m giving a few additional presentations as part of the show’s Cruisers University. I’m very excited about this, especially the Cruising Women program. Jamie seems to have been born with saltwater in his veins; before we went cruising, it was important to me to seek information and skills. Women-only courses provided the shared perspective and camaraderie that best supported my goals.  If you sign up, tell me! I’d love to anticipate meetups.

It feels very good to be poised for Bahamas takeoff in Fort Lauderdale, but first we had to get south from Jacksonville to Miami for my friend Lynne Rey’s birthday. Schedules again? Maybe, but no way would I miss this since we could be there! Along the way, there wasn’t  a lot of wind, but some beautiful sunny days and mellow seas that meant Niall could combine studying with watchkeeping in the cockpit.

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Along the way we spent a couple of evenings hanging out with Kirk McGeorge. He’s done a couple of circumnavigations on a sistership, Gallivanter, and now does some crazy cool work building underwater submersibles with an outfit in Fort Pierce (he was a Navy diver, and drove Alvin- THE Alvin- on Titanic, way back when). The last time we saw Kirk was Australia, nearly five years ago! Cruising friendships like his are GOLD – you pick up right where you left off, despite intervening years.

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In Miami, Lynne, her husband Tony (we sailed together in college) and their kids hosted us at the Coral Reef Yacht Club. This made fun birthday celebrations, late nights in the cockpit, kids learning and playing together, and a lot of good times very easy.

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It also made it much easier for a visit from Kerry (the impressive endurance athlete / sailor / quadriplegic I sailed with last month). She gave our family and the Reys a preview of a powerful documentary she’s a part of that I hope will be ready to share publicly soon. Some tissues required after viewing before we could pose for a pic together, our thumbs in the air for Kerry’s nonprofit, ThumbsUp International. ThumbsUp connects people of all abilities to tackle athletic challenges, in particular by teaming able and disabled athletes.

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Please check out the Facebook page for ThumbsUp International and give it a like to show your support! Kerry would really like to nudge it over the 2,000 like hurdle: can we do it?! Follow and share!

More friends visited: we first knew Tiffany and Greg as “the Coast Guard Couple” when we met them in Mexico eight (!) years ago; we last caught up in Australia. They’ve traveled a loop around the world since then, by sea across the Pacific and by land from SE Asia to the UK. Both are Coast Guard Academy graduates, both are hard core professional seafarers, and they had great advice on college and maritime licensing for Niall. Just the folks to help toss the lines when it was time to head to the anchorage, right?

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And then, there was maintenance and repair. Lots of it. Because that’s one definition of the cruising life.

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To give you an inkling of that everyday fun on Totem, and a peek into what’s kept Jamie busy here in Florida:

Outboard: FINALLY FIXED. It’s been sick for five months. Diagnosis by mechanic in Jacksonville: failed CDI unit, but we replaced that and still no spark. Option two: bad coil. Ding ding ding ding! Wires from the coil had both broken…photo above. They were crimped by a strain relief device, but the break was hidden inside of a plastic sleeve. Great 11th hour help from our new friend Conor, who borrowed a flywheel puller from a Miami auto shop to get it done.

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Sundowners on Totem later, time to talk story with Conor (former cruising kid, now physicist) and his dad

Aft cabin: I went to a road trip to Miami with my friend Patty, and Jamie broke the aft cabin. He’s since rebuilt my workspace, relocated the solar and wind charge controllers to a newly-constructed locker, and cleaned up a bunch of wiring spaghetti. Few words for a LOT of work.

Dodger: As a sailmaker, Jamie knows his way around a sewing machine. But canvas work is “fiddly” (his description) and he hoped to outsource Totem’s new dodger sides. But after weeks of no joy or no action from service providers in northern Florida, he took our friends on Shanthi up on the offer to borrow their SailRite and made it himself. Templating with Tyvek from the hardware store, then constructing the final from Sunbrella, Strataglass, and Tenara thread…on the dock, until it rained, with child labor…as you do. It IS fiddly, but he does great work, and saving the expense is a great bonus.

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Before he could get to the canvas, the whole hard top was shifted forward: this meant changing the frame (it’s more vertical on the forward face now) and building new supports.

Deck hardware: fully reinstalled the repaired stanchion base that broke on our unpleasant passage from Bermuda to Connecticut.

Engine: Fixed pesky drip from fuel filters after troubleshooting. Replaced barbs with correct size, replaced 3-way valve fitting, and O-rings. Hopefully this saves the $250 racor replacement kit!

Electrical: We use a rugged Panasonic Toughbook for our nav computer. Both plug connections for the nine-year-old 12v charger had failed; solder now leads directly to the board. All good.

Plumbing: Replaced failing cockpit drain hoses (shared with galley sink drain: presumed grease buildup). Fixed flaw in primary water tank that prevents proper venting with a few holes (and finally found out the actual capacity, two years later- 73 gallons!). Discovered (and replaced) leaking outlet fitting in tank. Aft head required an unclogging adventure, then replacing seals and hose and other work that I’d rather not know too much about. Thanks to my sweetie for being The One That Deals with the Head on board.

…and that’s just what he did on Totem! On friend’s boats, Jamie helped install a solar panel, did a few (three? four? five? I lost track) rig evaluations, and helped get one tuned properly.

I married well.

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One of the more significant preoccupations outside of prepping Totem is working with coaching clients. We thoroughly enjoy helping people make the leap to successful cruising! More recently, the kids have gotten into a few of our Skype sessions, too: prospective cruising kids want to hear the real scoop directly from them. Sitting around the iPad, this is a pretty typical scene.

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We closed our our Miami stay by anchoring in Marine Stadium, a sweet little spot with near 360° protection and a killer view of the downtown Miami. Backlit by twinkling lights from the skyline at night, we could detect dolphins circling Totem only by loud huffs of their breath. An idyllic spot to raft up and make some great memories with the pretty Huckins, Cortado (which is for sale, by the way), and her crew.

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Totem from Cortado

Totem is now in Fort Lauderdale, on our final countdown to departure for the Bahamas. We don’t know when we’ll be back in the USA, but it’s probably some years. I’ve got an insane list, and it includes major items like, oh, battery bank replacement. Full watermaker servicing. Diesel mechanic services. Provisioning for 3 months in islands with limited stores, and high costs. Supplies for Bahamian communities still impacted by hurricane Mathew last fall. Then there are the incidentals “but we won’t be in the USA for how long?” that inflate our list. Here in the mainland, we have access to better breadth of goods, at a better quality, and a better value, than we will likely encounter for a long time.

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It’s been blowing for days, but Totem is in a protected anchorage. There is access to supplies. Anchorage neighbors stopping by to chat from their kayaks. Visits from shoreside dwellers, arriving with friendship, the gift of papaya, and lessons in art (thank you, Jim!).

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Life is beautiful. I’m grateful every day for the choices we have and our freedom as a family, and can’t wait to extend our adventures…starting soon in the Bahamas!

Guns and cruising

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“What kind of guns do you have on board?” This was the opening question from a new acquaintance at a cocktail party. Loaded with assumptions from someone who doesn’t know us, and who has no intention of traveling the way we do. Walking down the dock the other day, a woman was overheard talking about practicing at the range because they were going to Mexico, and she’d need her gun there. It’s a big scary world out there, gotta protect yourself!

Or…it isn’t, and you just have to ditch the paranoia and think about it a little. The reality of our personal safety risks as cruisers is out of scale with those perceptions. But I guess in the “if it bleeds, it leads” media, a lot of people are lead to believe that the world outside the US borders is a dangerous place. It’s just not right. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve felt safer outside the USA during our years of travels than I do back at home. The scariest moment in our eight years of cruising came in California and had nothing to do with malicious intent…but that’s another story. What I wish the guy at the cocktail party had asked is “how do you stay safe?” This is something we think about all the time! Besides a healthy appreciation for our own lives, we carry our most precious cargo on board – our three kids. Any impression that we are cavalier about safety is misplaced.

Piracy hotspots are well known and easy to avoid. Our encounters at sea are so minimal they’re almost not worth mentioning. We were scouted in the South China Sea, a definite hotspot, but only for commercial vessels. There was a fishing boat in Sri Lanka that followed us for an entire day. We know it was a bunch of fishermen, and MAYBE it could have spun into something more than that, but that’s pure speculation. When the sun got low and they were still tailing us, we radioed our buddy boat and they basically beelined to our position… the fishermen left. (FWIW, these same guys traded us gorgeous fish!)

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Just countries get an unwarranted bad reputation; others simply need to be understood as more complex than just “bad” in general. O on couple of times we’ve chosen to travel in places that were so-called “dangerous” after our research concluded we’d be able to visit with minimal security risks. Papua New Guinea is one of those countries with a terrible reputation. It can be dangerous and has some crazy violent crime, just like the USA. But with a little bit of research, and understanding both where and why crime occurs, we made a plan to avoid problems and spent an unforgettable three months with few concerns. We had basic rules: we mapped locations with positive first-hand reports (I wrote about it here), we avoided places that were trouble hotspots (unique dynamics to PNG with extraction industries for mineral/timber/fish, or population centers), and we always trusted our gut: if a place didn’t feel right, we moved on.

Mexico is a more familiar for most Americans, like the woman down the dock who thought she’d need to arm herself. I chalk this up to lack of understanding and media influence. Staying safe in Mexico mostly comes down to “don’t be stupid” (walk around Tijuana drunk at 2am? Involved in drug trade of any kind?). We paid attention to the coconut telegraph and local reputations (watch your dinghy in Mazatlán, and your outboard in Barra.). Pretty sure most cruisers who have been to Mexico would agree with me: we feel safer there than we do in the US by a wide margin!

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Petty theft happens. If you think disguising your outboard to look beat up and old will make it less appealing, think again. It’s an outboard. Our US flag was probably stolen off the back of the boat in Seychelles, but we’re not even positive that was deliberate vs slippery line and knots coming undone. Our horseshoe was taken off the back of the boat in Labuan, Malaysia…probably. I think it was secure? Know the reputation of places you go, what to do or not do, and then be open. We’ve also noticed that folks who assume people are out to get them until proven otherwise are more likely to have problems with petty theft. There’s no statistical significance to the observation, but something demonstrated often enough.

With a return to the Caribbean ahead, we have a lot to learn about staying safe. Once again, it’s an area with risks to learn about and decide how to approach. Should we put bars across the hatches? Are there destinations to rule out? There’s a lot to figure out, but we’ll do our best, and we sure don’t think we’re safer by staying at home.

Back to the question we had at that cocktail party about how many guns are on Totem. Diplomatic me wants to say that guns on board are a personal choice and your choice is fine, but I’m not feeling very diplomatic. Guns aboard are a bad idea for a pile or reasons. Had the German boat recently boarded in the Philippines not had guns aboard, the woman aboard would probably still be alive. So would Sir Peter Blake.

While cruising in Mexico, we met a former green beret colonel out cruising with his family. His training is extensive, and his opinion- which I respect- was that the training needed for a gun on board is WAY outside the realm of the typical cruiser. It’s not just about going to the range, and how to handle it, but the microdecisions about when to use it. Even with all of his training, he felt he was safer without a gun on board than with one.

Aside from the fact that the best way to be shot by a gun aboard is to have a gun aboard, it’s a hassle. You have to declare them on entry in a new country. That country will almost certainly take them for you until you clear out, and your port of entry and intended port of clearance could be a long distance apart. Lying and hiding guns? Laws vary of course, but can mean incarceration or death if they’re found! Go ahead, cowboy. If someone is determined to target us and to take our stuff, I’d rather just let them take it than risk greater personal injury to my kids or myself.

Maintenance: neither routine or exotic

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One of the aphorisms of cruising describes our lifestyle as performing routine maintenance (or repairs) in exotic locations. This rings true, for better and for worse. “If you can’t fix it, be able to live without it” is another truism for voyagers, and a good reason to go simple. Bundle these with the additional reality that most tasks in our floating life take more time than they do in a normal (fixed, land-based, connected) existence. That’s a good summary of life on Totem right now, although northern Florida is NOT exotic, and this particular outboard fix has proved to be anything but routine.

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Jamie does all our outboard maintenance and repair (ably assisted by #1 grease monkey, Siobhan). A service manual is key: those exploded diagrams and part number references. He’s become very capable, but this time, the unshakable problem (and shifting symptoms) ultimately flummoxed him. Here in Jacksonville, Florida, professional servicing is affordable, parts are available, and we can finally be warm! We have no interested in going any longer without a dependable outboard. Totem’s Our RIB doesn’t row well–none of them really do–and we can’t wait to be liberated from the necessity of docks to get ashore.

The “fix it or deal” aphorism is all too true: when you’ve become accustomed to a creature comfort that suddenly goes away, your everyday life may go from comfortable to camping in a swoop.  It’s a good reason to try and equip minimally, even if you think some choices skew you towards camping. It is so much easier to add than it is to take away. We’ve also seen people who probably over-equipped, then later dropped out of cruising because the reality of constant maintenance to support that gear was more cost or time (or both) than they anticipated. Simply put, cruising involves a LOT of this maintenance/repair thing, and when you’re doing it right, it’s in exotic locations.

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Totem is middle-of-the road in terms of gear. I’m grateful Jamie has the hands-on mechanical skills needed. Shop manuals (like the one for ourourboard, top photo) should be on essential gear lists. Because when we finally had a diagnosis on the part (or maybe, two parts) which are behind our outboard woes, Jamie can see in the exploded diagram how to install it himself, and use the part number to source spares/replacement affordably.

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With hindsight, I also appreciate that some of the things I thought were essential to a happy life aboard…weren’t. For example, back on land, we had a big chest freezer in the garage (gotta put that steer share somewhere!) as well as a standard upright in our capacious kitchen. I never would have dreamed that life without a freezer wouldn’t be a problem. But that was one of the early adjustments to life aboard, and although we installed a small freezer a couple of years ago, I’ve never quite gotten used to using it. At this moment, it’s entirely empty!

Staying put to get this done (whyyyyy must it always take so long?) opens other opportunities. Like giving a presentation to a standing-room-only group at Jacksonville University: I love sharing our stories! And hanging out after with families who have dedicated chunks of their lives to cruising or full-time RV travel. Some long anticipated meetups, like Sara, Tim and kids– coaching clients we’ve gotten to know over the last few months–and the family from Ditching Suburbia who I’ve been in touch with for years now. They’re six year RV life vets currently WWOOFing on a Salatin-modeled farm a couple of hours away. Isn’t their name great?! It says so much in two words. And this family – they are ALL that.

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I don’t even want to know! (Jamie with Mike, from Ditching Suburbia, and Tim)

Jennifer and I started emailing each other when we were on opposite sides of the world a few years ago. Following the route she’s taken with her husband Mark on their Nordhavn, Starlet, has been my dream fodder for places to go in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. It was great to finally intersect, and no surprise to find her as fun and positive in person as she is over the internet. I wish I could say we’ll be seeing them again soon, but this boat is South Pacific bound. Give me a year or so…

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When not making plans to meet up in the marina, we’ve been hosted “off campus” by a local family I hoped we’d connect with on the way south. Here’s another great name: McMermaids! It was inevitable when the McCarthy took their water-happy girls cruising. They’re JAX residents and marine scientists who brought us into JU.

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There have been happy hours lost in the maze of books at Chamblin’s, just steps from the marina and the first bookstore I’ve ever seen which might just rival Powell’s. Besides the sheer joy of exploring books, I’ve found some winners to help our travel plans (or just dream with), and we’ve unloaded at least 1o0 lbs of books from Totem there. It is a maze: there are occasionally “you are here” signs with a floor plan to assist. It is FULL of temptation.chamblins

I AM SO EXCITED! Thanks to contributions from my brother and my aunt (and a killer year-end sale), Totem’s deck is now decorated with a paddleboard and SUP excursions are in our future. Our marina neighbor Kristen and her daughter picked me up for the inaugural jaunt. I think I’m supposed to share this SUP with the kids… going to have to work on that.

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175 Totem Art Kids FilterMeanwhile: the On The Wind podcast we recorded with Andy Schell & Mia Karlsson of 59 North went live! Our whole family sat in on the session around Totem’s main cabin table back in Annapolis not long ago, and we talked about everything from the myriad of ways to get started cruising (and our advice on getting started), how we did it, and other shared experiences on the big blue. Play from the link below, go here for iTunes, or here for Stitcher / Android.

This marina we’ve tucked into has convenience. The grocery store is walking distance. There are gobs of available services and resources. It’s an easy place to take care of paperwork and bureaucracy (Cuba permits, new passports for the kids) from a comfortable position. We’re really enjoying meeting up with people. And we’ll enjoy it to the fullest… but meanwhile, to a one, this crew cannot wait to put our homeland on the horizon and find new adventures again.

 

From Cape Town to Connecticut: Totem’s 2016

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Looking back on the milestones, adventures, and misadventures of 2016: what a year it was! Jamie’s a database guy: thanks to him we have some serious metrics and some silly ones. We closed out with 3,057 days as cruisers, one of our biggest mileage years yet, and a host of unforgettable experiences.

14 – countries/territories visited in 2016: South Africa; Namibia; British Overseas Territories of St Helena, Ascension, Montserrat, and Bermuda; Barbados; Dominica; overseas departments of France: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Martin; territories of the Netherlands, Saint Eustatius and Sint Maartin; USA

11,027 – miles in 2016 (9,582 NM)… a daysail less than our 2010 miles sailed.

50,244 – miles total (43,661 NM), yeah, we passed 50k!

266 – miles of best 24-hour run (231 NM), Ascension Island to Barbados

3,570 – miles of longest passage (3,102 NM), Ascension Island to Barbados completed in 17 days

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Somewhere in the Atlantic. March or April

1 – number of kayaks lost at sea, between Bermuda and USA – big waves + broken stanchion = sad day!

1 – number of medical events, when a barefoot Siobhan stepped on a cactus on Ile Au Cabrit, Guadeloupe. Spines removed and patient remains a staunch barefooter!

8 – bells tolled for Totem’s beloved first hamster, Jiaozi, who joined us in Thailand and ended her watch in Martinique

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Ghost town of Kolmanskopp, Namibia. February

90 – kilograms of propane (198 lbs) for cooking…and some cabin heat, late in the year

13 – presentations given from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake

66 – fieldtrips! – epic hikes, rich museums, fascinating people, incredible experiences: a mid-Atlantic BBC relay station, Napoleon’s (first) tomb, JFKs birth home, sea turtles laying eggs at dawn, the White House’s West Wing, science lessons from The Global Dude for starfish, ghost towns in the desert, etc. Lucky humans we are.

1 – number of boats we watched sink for an artificial reef in Barbados

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What a kid! Guadeloupe. May

11 – cuteness rating (1 to 10 scale) of baby goats on cactus-laden Ile Au Cabrit that certain barefoot girls liked to chase.

0 – number of elusive f@&#ing whale sharks seen in St Helena, at yet ANOTHER place “everyone” sees them (that’s four hotspots now)

500ish – number of visitors on Totem in 2016. Total speculation, and probably low, between a couple of open boat parties and a general bias for socializing with our fellow humans

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Legal capacity? Noank, Connecticut. August

55 – degrees Fahrenheit (12.8  C) of the Benguela Current along the edge of the Namib Desert made for amazing animal life: sea birds, whales, dolphins, sea lions, PENGUINS, and jellyfish

3.9 – depth in feet (1.2 meters), the least we’ve been ever (by far!), is the marina we’re now in – dock master said we may touch at low tide with Totem’s draft of 6.0 feet – he was right…

3.6 – number of feet (1.1 meters) by which we did NOT fit under bridges Totem was required to pass under, engendering creativity to squeeze beneath.

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Rooftop drinks with Mike & Kim before the White House. November

This is about the numbers… but the year was really about people. The new friends, like Mike & Kim (above)  and fellow traveling souls Matt & Wendy & family (below) who gave us indelible memories along the way.

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Veterans of the full-time traveling life! Charleston, December

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It was about the many reunions with familiar faces, and thanks to the internet, all the “old friends” we could meet for the first time.

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Manhattan. September

The data on 2015– 365 days, 7,988 miles, 2 oceans, 1 boat–is posted here for giggles and judgment.

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South Carolina. December

Are we in Florida yet?

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Apologies to those I’m about to offend, but the ICW is boring as ___. Flashes of pretty, the odd dolphin, aren’t enough of a tradeoff for the monotony of motoring day after day along narrow channel. If the weather was fine, it might cross into the realm of pleasurable for a short stretch, but in conditions we’ve had these miles are just something to get over with. To answer the question in the title: no, not in Florida yet! But Charleston for Christmas, along Totem’s slow path south down the ICW, is going to be great.

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So foggy we couldn’t see from one mark to the next

Waking to temperatures in the 30s is getting old. But it’s Jamie has taken the overwhelming brunt of the chill, standing for hours and hours on end at the helm. Hand-steering is the  norm: partly because the autopilot isn’t a good match for curvier stretches of the ICW. It’s also more tuned for offshore use, and tends to fish around too much for the narrow channels. But these factors are trumped by our failing spray dodger. You can’t see through it any more, so punching buttons for +1 / -1 on the autopilot while gazing out from a more protected spot isn’t an option. Meanwhile, Niall and I had a good laugh when we learned the itchy/sore spots we developed on our feet weren’t actually some fungus or infection, but a product of cold exposure (check) and poor circulation (lots of sitting around the boat while motoring).

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The bridge tenders are often a treat to talk to

Shoaling (we draw 6′) and bridges (with everthing stripped, we’re 64’4″) take patience and awarenss. South of Beaufort SC, the ICW water level is tidal (above, it’s influenced by wind): when Totem’s rig is too tall, we wait. We had to wait for THREE HOURS one day, and still needed to rig up the full kit of ballast to get under, but at least we fit.

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Pretty scenery, and pretty weird spec McMansions along the ICW

The weather has changed our eating habits, too. Salads normally feature, and being back in the land of mid-latitude veggies means bingeing on lettuce and other greens that were harder to find in the tropics. But now the cucumbers and tomatoes purchased in Beaufort are languishing because, well, they’re cold and cold is not very appealing. Instead it’s soups, stews, casseroles… basically anything we eat to keep warm! There’s something in the oven every day, because an uninsulated boat oven is a pretty good proxy for a heater on board.

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Did I mention the rain? Horizon level…Totem still in “induced heel” mode.

Is this whiny? That isn’t my style, but I’m also not going to paint a rosy picture of what’s been an uncomfortable stretch. Ultimately though I’m an optimist and believe it’s a choice to be happy, to find it wherever you are. In that vein, although these last couple of weeks haven’t made me a fan of the ICW, there are plenty of bright spots.

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The marshes look on fire in early morning light

Like the day we lingered in Carolina Beach to see old friends Frank & Karen from Tahina Expeditions. We first met in Tahiti, later hung out with in Australia, and last said goodbye to in Thailand nearly three years ago.

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Long history of card sharking with the Tahina crew

Beaufort, NC’s Homer Smith Marina offered unexpected hospitality. We picked it because it was the cheapest dockage in Beaufort where we could plug in to run our space heater overnight. Homer Smith came with a helping of friendly assistance, free laundry, a loaner vehicle, and offers to help with propane or whatever we needed. Shrimpers offload their catch here, and sell to the public, but the manager wouldn’t let us pay for the 2 lbs of fresh Carolina shrimp I wanted (thank you Matt, they were so sweet!) and gave us a free night when weather delayed our departure. The guys sorting shrimp in the shed pretty much made my day, joking around with each other and warmly answering my questions.

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The SSCA’s cruising station hosts in Beaufort, Normandie and Michael, treated us to lunch at a Mexican restaurant, where over horchata and margaritas (oh sweet memories!) we traded stories and discovered we had been in the SAME ANCHORAGES at pretty much the SAME TIMES, back in 2009 and 2010 in Mexico! It is a small, small cruising world — for real. (Normandie writes women’s fiction, and I love–LOVE–that she nails descriptions of cruising and sailing. I mean, of course she does! But that’s unusual to find in books that aren’t about sailing per se.)

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dsc02924We’ve had a good time with the Rockhopper crew, who leapfrogged us after Oriental, and sent back reports on bridge height and shoaling that were a great help for anticipating where we’d have issues to anticipate as we followed in their wake. Suzanne isn’t big on personal pictures so we took one of our feet instead!

There’s something about the sight of spanish moss hanging from trees cropping up as if a sign we’d crossed some invisible line in South Carolina. Spanish moss and frosty weather seem incongruous: this bodes well for warmer days ahead. Until then, Jamie’s cockpit lounge wear includes wears a one-piece fleece suit under a full set of foul weather gear, plus a hat and ski gloves that Frank passed along. Our hamster, Mochi, builds herself an igloo from cotton wadding and an old sock. We hibernate below deck as much as possible. We cuddle up together to watch a movie and share body heat in the evenings. We have actually used a hot water bottle at night.

Smart birds flying SOUTH.

Smart birds flying SOUTH.

A few hours ago, Totem tied up at the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina. Welcomed by the dock staff and one of the liveaboards on arrival, with an expansive facility decorated to the hilt for the season, this is going to be a sweet spot for a holiday week….and it’s forecast to be in the 60s and 70s again!

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How to fit a 64’4″ rig under a 64′ bridge

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We’re never going down the Intracoastal Waterway, I said. We’re too tall for the ICW, I said. Totem’s rig is about 68’ over the water, when everything is attached. The ICW is sprinkled with bridges; many of them open, quite a few do not. The controlling height over water for those fixed bridges is 65’ (and, there’s a 64’er in there just for fun). Totem doesn’t fit, but that’s fine, we’d rather sail offshore anyway. Besides being more fun than motoring, it’s faster. We’d get to Charleston in two and a half days going offshore; motoring down the ICW takes a multiple of that.

…And then we headed down the ICW anyway, motoring about 185 miles from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC.

Why? Because we made that fatal error in cruising: we had a schedule. Only one week to get from Norfolk (where Niall sat for the SAT on Saturday Dec. 3) to Charleston, SC (where he was due to take the ACT exam the following Saturday). For non-US readers, these exams are THE two standardized tests that high school students take for college/university applications. One week of time to make what should be a two-and-a-half-day offshore passage. No problem, right? Well, big problem if the forecast isn’t right. And it wasn’t. So with a gloomy weather outlook and the SATs over, we strategized how to squeeze our 68’ tall boat under 65’ bridges. Oh, that 64’ bridge that doesn’t fit the mold. Dangit!

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Stripping all instruments from the mast to prepare included Maretron weather station, windex (wind direction indicator), anchor light, and VHF antenna. The windex was brought down; the rest were taped up aloft. We filled all of Totem’s fuel tanks, water tanks and jerry cans to add ballast; then we measured, carefully, once again. Final height over water: 64’4″. When it came time to go under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge, we’d induce heel. And no, you can’t wait for the tide to go down. Water levels in that part of the ICW aren’t influenced by the moon, but by the weather. Wind from the south or storm systems can elevate levels, but there’s no tide to help us underneath.

More than a few people shared this video of a boat with forced heel in order to fit under a bridge. I swore we’d never do something like that to our Totem. Thanks to the 64′ air draft at Wilkerson, and our 64’4″, well… we were going to induce heel, too. When will the lesson stick that I should never say never?

Changes in plans bring silver linings. An extra couple of days in Norfolk meant finally meeting a friend in person. Always fun to bring out the weapons ceremonial cultural tools from PNG as props behind sea stories.

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We were treated to a fabulous raclette dinner (and a trip to Costco!) with the French-American family of a blog reader that has their own plans to go voyaging with kids someday.

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Departure from Norfolk was a gray drizzly morning. On the first day motoring “the ditch” had fifteen bridges and a set of locks to pass through.

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In company are two boats: our old friend Bill on Solstice (we’ve crossed two oceans together!) and the new-to-cruising Gromit crew. Mike, Brittany and their three girls (blogging here) bought the boat circumnavigated by a Canadian family that we met back in Malaysia. It’s slightly surreal to see Gromit again! Good company, but we had to leapfrog them the first day to get Niall to his exams on time, via rental car from Beaufort, NC.

It was a slow slog of bascule bridges, trestle bridges, fixed bridges…lots of rain, and not much traffic.

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Most of the bridges have a gauge so you can judge the available height based on the water level. Some are easier to read than others. At least we know this one is well over the 64’4″ we need!

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Besides being rainy, it’s cold. 30s overnight, 40s in the daytime. The channel dredged to depth that accommodates Totem’s 6′ draft is narrow, requiring constant attention at the helm. And because the old question of time and money has delayed replacing the dodger sides, the helm is exposed to the elements. Jamie is a champ: I kept him company and took the wheel now and then, but he did 99% of the three and a half days of motoring to Beaufort in less than comfortable conditions. At least on a few stretches the headsail gave a nice pull.

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The scenery is beautiful. I’ve heard people love this aspect of the ICW; of course,they mainly travel when it’s at least 20 degrees warmer and there are still leaves on the trees. I hadn’t given the it much thought since the route was written off as “not what we were doing” in my head. Absorbing the landscape of the inner banks was a gift.

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Long stretches held no signs of civilization; at other times, the intimacy of homes along the waterfront, where you can almost hear the TV flashing through a back window, felt uncomfortably close. And then there were the hidden gems, like this mysterious camper (Airstream?) overgrown with vines, or the hint of a classic car under cover in a back yard.

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We anchored in the water north of the Alligator-Pungo channel: turns out, military jets come here to play.

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Quiet evenings at anchor made for fun family time. The kids decided we were due to start holiday decorating, and so we did.

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What else did we do? Niall logging many hours daily on ACT practice tests and study guides. The girls did a lot of reading. There were a few rounds of Hamilton sing-a-longs. Ah, who am I kidding… that’s a nightly event currently (thank you Cindy!).

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The glassy anchorage at Alligator-Pungo was a perfect spot to finalize preparation for inducing heel to fit under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge the next day. We estimated we should have at least 6 degrees, and more was better. Talk about the PERFECT example of real-life trigonometry, just in time for our exam-cramming kid! Meanwhile, going aloft again, Jamie added a pigstick to the mast. PVC pipe, about 3″ diameter and 3′ long, facing forward. On a dead slow approach, if the stick hits the bridge — we bail out. If it passes under, no problem. All the jerry cans and a 50 gallon bladder tank filled with water were strapped on the starboard side deck.

As we got close to the bridge, further heel was induced. Additional weight at the end of the boom, swung out starboard, would further increase our angle of heel. First, our 18hp Tohatsu was tied on. Then, the spare anchor, a 70 lb CQR. This came with Totem: it’s the first time we’ve used it. Next, a couple of full jerry cans, and a heavy bag of rigging hardware.

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Then, we added the kids. Probably should have put PFDs on. Please don’t judge.

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We estimate we had 500 lbs on the boom, in addition to an extra 700 lbs on the starboard side deck. To top it all off, Jamie opened a through hull and we flooded the bilge with another 40 gallons or so of swamp water. At Wilkerson, the water gauge read a about 63’11”.

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Hooo boy. Boom OUT, heel ON!

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The pigstick test worked: a sigh of relief as it passing under the last of the girders.

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Yeah yeah yeah yeah! A very happy family.

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Jamie’s comment: size doesn’t matter. Trig does.

A few resources were especially helpful down the Norfolk to Beaufort, NC, path for the ICW:

I made a document that outlined our progress by hazard (and, what we’d do about each hazard). Inputs to these: Active Captain, the Salty Southeast Cruisers’ Net, and the ICW cruisers guide. Water levels at Neuse as a proxy for what we might see at Wilkerson. It’s amazing what details are in the USCG notice to mariners and US Army Corp of Engineers sites for updates on dredging and mark placement. The human factor is always the best, and in true cruiser tradition, the best came from a roundup of “ICW doulas” who were a big help with our last-minute decision to go down the ditch instead of making an offshore passage. My friend Judy Hildebrand, a delivery skipper who has driven boats (including Totem’s sisterships) up and down the ICW many many times. Nicola, Suzanne, and many more members of the awesome ICW subgroup from Women Who Sail.

It was beautiful if chilly trip. I’d like to think that was “roll credits!” but… well, never say never. Looks like we’ll start down the ICW again, leaving from Beaufort tomorrow…

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem... already sporting an ICW moustache!

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem… already sporting an ICW moustache!