Mochilas and memories in Colombia

girl holding a toucan

Posts about why Colombia is a great place to visit and a practical orientation to Colombia for cruisers were written to help others with decisions about Caribbean routing and destinations. But Colombia was more than that for us, and I blog for my family record as much as to help cruisers in our wake. Captured here are a stream of those favorite memories contributing to reasons this warm country left a mark on our family, like the time Mairen held a toucan, with a taste of the rhythm of cruising life.

We met online

When you’re new in an anchorage, it’s normal to dinghy over and introduce yourself to a neighbor. When you’re in a new marina, it’s easy to do a dock walk and go meet other cruisers. OK, so I actually got to meet Dan and Kika back in Grenada – but we first connected online, and had fun trading hangout time on  respective boats while we were in Colombia together. The couple rehabbed a modest “classic plastic” that their background as architects tints with elements of style you don’t often see. We rarely have bandwidth for YouTube, but their channel—Sailing Uma—is one of the few I seek out when the opportunity presents. Not sure what they’ve shared about plans publicly so without tipping their hand, I’ll just say… this crew is one to watch!

Zen garden and artifacts: sometimes it’s better to pick fun over practicality

Kika and I demonstrate the advantage of being… vertically challenged. We can stand on their Japanese-style seating platform without touching the headliner.

Local friendships

We also met Carlos Correa online – he reached out through Instagram. Carlos is a champion Colombian freediver who teaches locally and competes internationally. We invited him for sundowners, discovered mutual friends (the crew behind Evolve Freediving), and had a memorable evening getting his insights into Colombia, the local marine life, and freediving spots. Similarly, a cruising buddy we met in Puerto Rico was back visiting his family in Cartagena: who needs an excuse for drinks at a (we’re not hip enough to be here!) bar near the Old Town? Soaking in the sophisticated vibe with Paulo a couple of cruisers-turned-expats making a life in Cartagena, they apprised us about life today in this historic city.

Back in Santa Marta, it was Colombian/Venezuelan couple Hannah and Luis – fellow regulars enjoying sunset from the patio – who added assistance, information, understanding and enjoyment. They live in town and offer captained charters from their sailboat. You can even have Carlos come along and provide a freediving lesson! Hannah helped us get propane fills (angling hard for a local price), ferried cruisers to the Costco-like Makro shop inland (and loaned her member card) along with other local orientation. Stretching beyond our cruising community in new locales enriches our lives for more than the short term: I hope we’ll keep in touch with these wonderful humans for the long term.

Road tripping

Traveling together can test relationships, bring out their strengths or weaknesses. Road tripping with Aussie cruising friends guarantees more fun. We day-tripped to the highlands in Minca and stretched out to bus to Cartagena for a few days’ stay, backing each other up when needed to make the experience easier and more enjoyable.

Are Andrew and Jamie gazing in each others’ eyes as they’re serenaded by buskers in Cartagena?

kids on the bridge cartagena

Kids getting silly in the old town

Are we there yet? Waiting for the bus from Santa Marta to Minca

Hamster therapy

Our pet hamsters don’t leave the boat. It’s one of the qualities that make them an excellent boat pet. So it says a lot that we took ailing hamster Mochi, her paw swollen, to see a vet in Santa Marta. He diagnosed an inoperable tumor and directed palliative care. Mere hours later we met a cruiser who introduced herself as a zoological veterinarian with experience in everything from hamsters to elephants. Michele proceeded to provide boat-calls and treatment for Mochi from her well supplied medical kit. Siobhan later acted as vet tech for amputation of Mochi’s deeply infected paw.

Mochi has come a long way from the Mamaroneck Village Pet Store and racked up 14 countries so far- about as many as her predecessor from the Phuket night market. Hamsters have a short life span and we know we’re on borrowed time, but cannot believe the good fortune to improve the quality of her remaining days from the chance meeting with Michele. It’s unusual to know the professional background of a cruiser you’ve shared anchorages with for months, although you’ll know more about them as a person than your neighbors at home – we never needed it more than we did in Santa Marta.

Steeped in history

Jamie grew up in the part of the USA where a surprising number of places claim “George Washington slept here.” In Colombia, this is repeated for Simon Bolivar. The Venezuelan rebel played a leading role in the modern statehood of not just Venezuela but Ecuador, Peru and… Colombia. He died in Santa Marta in the 1830s and leaves a widespread legacy; Santa Marta alone includes a museum in his former villa, a memorial, an airport, numerous statues, and many BOLIVAR WAS HERE relics.

He slept here, too.

Lime with that?

I’ve mentioned my love for the Colombian Almuerzo Ejecutivo, the $3-4 set lunch. It starts with soup, delivered to the table with a plate of cut limes. For weeks we squeezed the limes on to the soup (and dribbled on some picante sauce, too). Then we realized the other patrons used limes to wipe their cutlery before using it (disinfectant?). Ahhhh… whoops! So that’s why it sometimes was mixed in the bin of cutlery for the whole table. Well, at least we figured it out eventually.

cut limes with soup course

Lime with that?

Not just for tourists

When a new boat pulls in, there’s a kind of ritual where the ‘seasoned’ (they’ve been there a day/ week/ month) cruiser offers intel. Where do you take your garbage? How’s the shore access? Tips/tricks for getting around? Whatever you need to know. Shortly after arriving in Santa Marta, I met up with Sherrie and Kendall – two “kid boat” moms I’ve been hoping to connect with in person. They were my Santa Marta welcoming committee, and I happily tagged along on their (last day, sadly) errands… learning where to find good cheap eats, the park with free wifi, the overpriced bar to avoid, a source for art supplies, and more. They both sported a mochila, the woven handbags worn by men and women alike in Colombia. Sold in colorful cottons or naturally hued wool, the bucket-shaped bags are distinctively Colombian. First impressions from the beach-front souvenir stalls suggest they’re a tourist item, but you see mochilas worn by rich and poor, old and young, classy and gauche alike. After education on the materials, design, and styles – even a non-handbag-carrier like me was tempted.

Not just for ad campaigns

Remember Juan Valdez ad campaigns on TV? In peasant garb and attended by a donkey, he represented a good cup of coffee (with Colombian beans only, of course). Senor Valdez is not just a figment of American advertising, but the brand image for Colombia’s national coffee federation and the name of an upscale Starbucks-like coffeeshop chain (it even has a few US outlets). Of course, it was necessary to patronize. I didn’t see Juan in his peasant garb raise his coffee to me in salute, but the iconic man and donkey were gazed down from signage.

Totem is well supplied with delicious coffee, now checked out of Panama and northbound for Costa Rica. Find our current location—and speed, if we’re underway—at our PredictWind tracking page.

Panama Canal: the cost for a big shortcut

Totem enters the Pacific

Totem rocks gently at anchor on the Pacific side of the Panama canal. There’s more to share about our transit, but “how much does it cost?” comes up frequently. Here’s what we paid to transit the Panama canal, with a breakdown of fees to help estimate what it could cost others.  It’s a lot of money, but let’s face it: Cape Horn and the Northwest Passage present inconvenient alternatives for sailing to the Pacific.

Fees levied by Panama’s canal authority, the ACP:

  • Transit toll: $800 (same all boats up to 50’)
  • Inspection by an ACP Admeasurer: $54 (fixed by ACP)
  • Security charge: $130 (fixed by ACP)

Fees for Panama formalities:

  • Panama cruising permit: $197 (fixed)
  • Panama visas: we paid $315 ($105/adult). Panama since stopped levying this fee. bummer for us!
  • Other formalities: $55

Other canal transit costs:

  • Agent fee: we hired Erick Galvez from Centenario for $350
  • Line handlers: four required in addition to the skipper/helmsperson. Our friends volunteered. $0
  • Lines/fenders: Rented four lines of 125 feet, and large fenders, through our agent for $75
  • Bank commission for ACP payments handling: $60
  • Water taxi tip for collecting lines/fenders: $12

Total fees necessary for Totem to transit the canal: $2,048.

You can pay a little less, and you can pay a lot more. Here’s how:

Boat size: The 50’ cutoff for $800 is a hard one. There is no lower cost bracket for shorter boats. From 50′-80′, the fee is $1,300. The Admeasurer brings a tape and measures the vessel’s extreme length. Got a bowsprit? Anything sticking off the transom like a solar arch? These are included in the length. We deflated our dinghy tubes to keep them on the davits (thinking a clear foredeck was safer for line handlers) and stayed barely below the 50’ mark.

Agent fees: You can save this expense and arrange transit yourself. Not rocket science, just takes time, and some precautions. Agent fees vary. We picked ours based on a mix of glowing referrals and competitive rate. An agent saves money in some ways (no buffer paid- more on that below; no taxiing around to visit officials – you don’t walk / take public transportation in Colon with a pocketful of cash, it’s not safe). Our primary purpose in hiring the agent was to have an advocate for our transit timing, so our friends visiting from the US could transit with us. That didn’t work, but once we were in Colon, he was an excellent advocate and presented short-term openings for us twice in our first week there (the waiting period during our peak-season stay ballooned to as much as 21 days from measurement to transit; we got through in 10).

Line handlers: Hiring a handler is $100+ and hires sleep on your boat overnight. Cruisers often try to transit on another boat ahead of their turn in order to see what it’s like, a nice tradeoff for everyone. You should pay their taxi fare in the opposite direction. Do make sure they know how to tie a proper knot and have basic boat sense, and will be ready to work instead of take pictures. A guy next to us worrying about his big DSLR nearly lost his fingers because he wasn’t paying attention.

Lines & fenders: we have line of sufficient strength and length on board, but it would have to be cut for canal use. The lengths are intended for use with our sea anchor, and then we’d want to replace that line. Standard dock fenders are not strong enough for the forces the canal may impose (also: having seen the concrete walls, would not want to subject them to it!). It’s possible to pay less (I heard $50) and get tires instead of fenders.

At least the tires are usually well-wrapped in plastic, and certainly durable

Bank fees: if you walk around and get all the cash (US dollars, and you do need cash, and it isn’t easy to get to ATMs in Colon, and you cannot safely walk for one block in Colon with that kind of money on you), you can probably save some of the bank commission (which you’ll then pay in taxi fees). We were happy to let the agent handle this.

Water taxi: your rented lines/fenders have to be returned, and the launch crew at Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side handles it for $12. One of the boats rafted with us stiffed them. Not cool.

Panama visas and cruising permit: the visa fee was eliminated about two weeks after we checked into the country. If we weren’t such rules followers, and sailed through Guna Yala without clearing in and waited until we reached the canal zone, we could have saved $315! Oh well.

Clearance fees: Outbound clearance fee: $35; “document fee” to crooked port captain in Colon: $20. Well hopefully you won’t have the unscrupulous Colon port captain who charged us a “pena” (penalty) I’m pretty sure was not warranted, to prepare a maritime authority document which our inbound clearance port that had not provided. The $35 outbound clearance fee is fixed, however.

Buffer fee: In addition to the other ACP fees, all paid in advance of transit, you must pay a nearly $900 “buffer fee.” This is a bond to ensure you don’t rack up charges from missing your slot, being too slow, needing a water taxi for your line handlers or whatever. If you hire an agent, he takes care of this buffer fee. That fee is eventually returned by the ACP, but between general distrust of the efficiency of the system, our intention to sail north from the canal ASAP instead of sticking around to make sure we got our money back, and a desire for advocacy in our timing and procedure for transit – we picked hiring an agent.

I wished to have a simple breakdown of the costs and how they varied to estimate our fees (we ballparked higher, but were basing off a boat that paid more – partly based on LOA, as their LOA crept over 50 although it’s “46 feet”, and partly based on agent charges). I actually expected our fees to be at least $3,000, so as bad as this sounds, it’s “good.” Although even if we paid less, the canal fees still make Panama the MOST expensive country we have cruised in to date – by a margin of hundreds of dollars!

That’s OK. We didn’t have the warm enough clothes to detour the long way in either direction anyway.

Tristan and Niall contemplate the Bridge of the Americas from the Pacific


Colombian practicalities for cruisers

sailboats boats with dress flags

What should you know before sailing to Colombia? Planning details often clarify with hindsight. What we loved about Colombia is a start for anticipation: for those considering this destination, here are a few additional tips to help with practical planning for cruisers.


Along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, there are two choices for ports: Santa Marta, and Cartagena. We chose to stay in Santa Marta, and visited Cartagena by bus. I’d do the same thing again if we return to Colombia and believe it’s the best option for a shorter stay.

For a shorter visit, and Santa Marta offered the best convenience and efficiency, with the opportunity to soak up exposure to range Colombian experiences. Within Santa Marta were museums, good food, and a well preserved historical district; logistics at the cruiser-friendly marina were a breeze with the front office support of Kelly Hernandez.

Santa Marta is a good base to explore Colombia, for daytripping or beyond. One-day forays into the Sierra Nevada (it would make a great overnight to sleep in a hammock in some hillside hostel or farm and hike further!) and national parks are easy. Going further? Santa Marta and Baranquilla airports make short hop flights to further exploring in central or south America a snap for those with the time and budget. If you won’t sail much further in South America, jump from here to experience the Amazon or Machu Picchu.

Saddling up to go riding near Rio Buritaca, a couple of hours east of Santa Marta.

In Colombia you must clear in and out of every port, and an agent is required for clearance. This additional bureaucratic layer comes with additional cost. In Santa Marta, the marina arranges the agent covers their fee- handy! In Cartagena, you must hire the agent (fee approx. US$100) to handle your clearance with the Port Captain.

The hassle factor in time and cost of clearing in and out of Cartagena helped confirm our decision to visit overland instead of sailing (because no way were we going to skip Cartagena!). It’s about a four-hour bus ride from Santa Marta, and the inter-city rides are affordable. There are varying grades and speeds; our direct bus had Netflix movies (driver’s choice, thankfully nothing gruesome or crazy loud, all in Spanish), air conditioning, and wifi. For the kids, there’s an added air of adventure to staying in a hotel: a rare occurrence, but affordable here. The cost was probably net zero, but the experience of seeing the countryside, trying food from vendors who came on board to sell wares, and just relaxing for a while were a good trade for wrangling with officialdom.

Spotting sea eagles from our berth in Marina Santa Marta

Had we planned or anticipated a much longer say, we’d have been more likely to skew towards Cartagena. Unlike Santa Marta, it’s safe to stay anchored out and access dinghy facilities for a nominal fee; overall, our cost to stay would have been much lower for a monthlong visit, while marina costs mounted (we stayed more than twice as long as we anticipated). One big downside to the harbor in Cartagena is the reputed rate of fouling: every boater who stopped there bemoaned the speed at which bottoms were covered with barnacles and growth. Santa Marta isn’t exempt, but it’s not quite as bad.


Colombia’s Caribbean coast no longer deserves the frank warnings touted in our 2015 Panama guide, but security still requires attention. Two years previously a cruising boat anchored in Taganga Bay, near Santa Marta, was victim to armed robbery and assault. It wasn’t the first time in that location: in our mind, that made the security of a marina our only option in Santa Marta. It’s hard to swallow the cost, but a no-brainer compared to risking physical harm. Reports on CSSN and Noonsite helped inform our decision.

While we felt secure aboard Totem and in general, petty theft is a problem. Three other cruisers in the we met there were robbed during their stay in Colombia: not from their boats, but ashore. Two were crimes of opportunity (handbag disappeared from the patron in a restaurant; wallet taken from an open tote in a shopping cart at the supermarket), one a deliberate attack (a pedestrian distracted by the smartphone in hand was targeted by motorbike thugs who forcibly took a bag). We’ve heard anecdotal stories about petty theft; having so many hits in our small circle drove home the need to be cautious.

Massive door knockers in Cartagena represent the homeowner’s livelihood, turning an Old Town stroll into a scavenger hunt for 1700s occupations


We arrived as the trade winds were up. Sometimes called “Christmas winds,” the Caribbean easterlies increase force in December. There’s probably some regional variation: in Colombia, they’re reputed to linger through March. This is really not a great time to be sailing off the coast! Windspeed isn’t a big deal, but seas are, and the wind contributed to an unpleasant state. Timing is taken out of your hands too: at this writing, winds have been in the 40s and clocked over 50 knots at the dock in Santa Marta recently. Boats have been waiting for a couple of weeks for a break in the weather sufficient to depart.

Better timing would be to avoid this period of peak trades. We’d have done well to arrive in early November, and depart in December before the breeze picked up (in fact, the weather window we arrived with in late December saw a rush of departures from Santa Marta as boats took advantage of moderated conditions to make a break… west to Panama, or north towards the Greater Antilles).

dancing at the waterfront

Cruisers dance to a Venezueland bnd on the patio at marina santa marta

Another consideration around seasonal timing: rainy season downpours wash off the sooty dirt that otherwise accumulates on boats in Santa Marta. Our friend Bev left her catamaran for a couple of the wet months and came back to a clean boat. A few weeks later the rain had stopped and the black dust coated everything. Part of this dirt is probably partly from the darker sand beaches nearby, but I suspect much stems from coal transfer stations at the port. That’s caustic stuff you don’t want sitting around on your boat, but water use to rinse it off is metered at the marina – it would have added up to rinse the everyday accumulation.

Other formalities

An agent is needed for port clearance, as mentioned. In addition, Colombia requires a cruising permit for any stay over 5 days (it seemed like the ARC rally passing through made this part of their calculation for duration of stay). Lucky Canadian visitors are charged a reciprocal visa fee; no other nationalities we know of had to pay this. The process takes some time as the TIP doesn’t begin until you’re in-country for the minimum number of days, and includes a personal visit from a friendly customs officer who wants to take a picture of your engine and its serial number. That was a first! It’s a lot of paperwork, another point to the Marina Santa Marta for taking care of details…they also helpfully provided multiple copies of our zarpe (outbound port clearance) and crew list (in Spanish), knowing these would be required when we checked into Panama.

Marine work

Haulout facilities are available in Santa Marta and in Colombia: what’s missing are well stocked marine chandleries. This didn’t stop a few boats we met from tackling projects in Colombia, and based on how much we enjoyed the country in general and how affordable labor rates are in particular, I think it makes a strong alternative to southern Caribbean haulout options (e.g. Grenada, Curacao, T&T). The raw materials and skillsets are here, they’re just not tuned to the marine market. If shipping parts in, it’s important to use a reputable courier (in Colombia, FedEx and DHL have good reputations: once in-country our DHL parts were quickly delivered. The books sent by the US Postal Service are STILL lost on Bogota somewhere).

I don’t know when we’ll get back, but Colombia left a mark…and still I’ve failed to capture the best memories, soon to follow.


Colombia for cruisers: a different attraction

sailboat arrival santa marta

It wasn’t many years ago that Colombia was considered dangerous to visit: cruisers lured by pretty Venezuelan islands towards South America rarely made the hop next door. While care must be taken, the story has flipped: improved domestic stability makes Colombia a relatively secure destination and economic collapse had turned Venezuela into a no-go zone.

We arrived in Santa Marta, Colombia with plans to stay not much more than a week: just long enough for Jamie to fly up to Puerto Rico for rigging work on a friends’s boat, a quick overland trip to Cartagena, and then we’d be off. Delays getting watermaker parts threw a wrench in that (what started as an overnight delivery from St Thomas to Puerto Rico took nearly three weeks to reach us in Colombia). That’s just part of cruising, and it turns out it was a gift: there was more to enjoy every day we extended. Here’s what stands out: the landscape, people, food,  culture, and more that made Colombia a vibrant and memorable stop.

Sierras not seas

Cruising gives us many opportunities to experience warm, clear water and sunny clean beaches…neither of which are abundant in the Colombia we saw. Sewage from Santa Marta runs into the bay, and while the beaches were packed with domestic holiday goers in December and January—they didn’t look much more appealing than the water. On the other hand: as a visitor, Colombia’s inland scenery is stunning. Among the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world, the Sierra Nevada present a dramatic horizon upon arrival and beg exploring.

Weaving into the foothills on a two-lane road, bustle of Santa Marta faded with startling rapidity and the quiet rhythm of early morning in the countryside descended. Mairen, Siobhan and I traveled a couple of hours east to Buritaca for horseback riding, fulfilling a Christmas promise. Clearing the limits of town, gaining altitude, the jungle crept closer. Villages sprang up as clusters around the main road and enveloped our senses. Just steps from the narrow motorway were vendors cooking fragrant sausages over charcoal, flipping the ubiquitous arepa (a maize flour patty) on a griddle, and serving hot tinto (Colombian coffee) to wash them down. At one roadstead stop, a Kogi family—an indigenous people to the Sierra Nevada—got in, startlingly different in all-white homespun clothes, small stature and features. Mere days into our stay, it was startling to see indigenous people preserving what appeared to be a strictly traditional way of life despite close access to development.

Photo, Dwayne Reilander; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Rio Buritaca runs from the Sierra Nevadas to the ocean. Our ride was planned for time on the beach and time in the river, but king tides took most of the beach away (temporarily!) and heavy rains overnight made horses balk at the swollen rio. Jungle trail it is, then!

horseback riding in Buritaca

Mairen has always felt perfectly at home on the back of a horse

horses and river

Siobhan’s horse refused to cross one edge of the river until led by the guide

Another morning we headed directly inland to Minca, a village almost directly inland at about 2,000’ elevation. Again, the city quickly fell away: hiking to visit an organic coffee plantation opened spectacular views.

On the trail with the Utopia II crew… and horses carrying firewood

Up into the clouds: at least the elevation kept the temperature down.

Coffee ripening at the organic ‘finca’ (farm) of La Candelaria

In each case, the buses were cheap- just a few dollars to be transported into a new and marvelous landscape. For cruisers with more time and bigger budgets, the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is a four to six-day trek into these mountains to an archaeological site that predates Machu Picchu, more than 20 miles through the mountains and Kogi villages. Probably abandoned during the Spanish conquest, it was once a city of thousands.

Historic and cultural interest

Indigenous tradition layered with Spanish influence create a richer, more nuanced, and vibrantly presented way of life than we’ve seen in a long time. For all their unique qualities, after a while I confess that many of the Caribbean islands blend together as variations on a theme: it seems our traveling spirits thrive on learning from the new. Colombia was a welcome whiplash of streaming language, arts, literature, history… all playing into the experiences awaiting. And then, the Old Town in Cartagena de Indias is simply spectacular. A couple of days there was only enough to tease.

cartagena free tour

Kids listen (mostly) to the Cartagena Free Tours guide in Old Town: more informative than the tour we paid for!

inquisition museum

Cartagenas inquisition museum, the seat of a perfect record for executing 100% of those accused of witchcraft or heresy – 800 over about 250 years

Culinary imprint

Tastes enhance the memory of a place, and Colombia added a few in particular. You cannot go to Colombia without eating arepas (well, you could, but it would be very wrong!). My favorite was con huevo, a fried egg tucked within; con queso a close second. Paired with a sizzling chorizo from a streetside vendor, that’s better fast food than any chain!

Arepas vary regionally: these thicker cheese arepas were sold on the street in Cartagena.

Patacones (twice-fried green plantain slices) are standard accompaniments to a meal. Colombia produces more arabica beans than any country in the world, and coffee is woven into culinary culture: vendors push carts laden with thermoses down the street, paused by Colombianos to buy a caffeine jolt in small cups.

We fell into the habit the Almuerzo Ejecutivo, Executive Lunch. It includes a soup starter, a main course of rice, beans, patacones, and your choice from the chalkboard selection of the days stews and grilled meat, and served with a fresh juice. It costs less than a Starbucks coffee. Perhaps the bandeja paisa, farmer’s plate, a sampler with a range of dishes (below) is more; still less than a latte. Shoehorned in among lively tables in establishments set up in the street front room of a family home (restaurant sign optional), listening to street musicians play for small change while taste buds were treated to a sampler of Colombian cooking.

Colombian lunch of champions, the Bandeja Paisa: SO GOOD


After so many months in more expensive Caribbean islands, it was good to be in back in low-cost-of-living territory. Groceries are a big chunk of our monthly budget, and Colombia helped bring the average down again. It also afforded little luxuries we’d forgo elsewhere. Multi-course lunch? Around $3-$4. Why not get a break from cutting my own hair when a fancy salon is just $11, including the coffee? Packed kebabs from a street vendor—marinated beef, chicken, and vegetables—only a dollar? One per person carried steaming back home to Totem made for an easy dinner.

On the other hand: staying in the marina, a security necessity, was not cheap…but could have been worse.

Warm people

At every turn Colombians were engaging and helpful. Our Spanish is basic at best, and in everyday life the Colombians we met rarely spoke English. It wasn’t an obstacle: friendliness and interest saw every interaction through, with a little help from Google translate and a pocket dictionary. When I had my hair cut in a salon, none of the staff spoke English but found another patron who could translate enough to ensure they understood my wishes. Our Spanish skills improved daily.

Arriving between Christmas and New Year’s opened a peek into a vital, family-centered domestic life. Santa Marta is a destination for Colombians on holiday, and they know how to take time out: the beach was packed with families. Vendors pitching tourists weren’t focused on hawking wares to us gringos as much as their fellow sudamericanos. It was hard to tell weekends from weekdays in the busy marina, where local powerboats daily transported multi-generational families with coolers and platters and nightly cranked up the tunes for dockside entertainment.

It’s always about the people, isn’t it?

More to follow on our experiences in Colombia…meanwhile a few more pictures.

Kids displaying classic ABM face – Another Bloody Museum

Third-generation coffee grower sharing his favorite method to prepare the beverage… what do you think?

Resident toucan at La Candelaria.

An education on politics, economics, agriculture learning about the farm.


Bonaire for cruisers: more than diving


Bonaire: more than a dive destination? For most visitors, diving is THE reason to go, and it was certainly the lure for us to select Bonaire among the Dutch Antilles. But our planned “about a week” turned into nearly three: partly thanks to a circle of friends, but also because the island offered more than we anticipated: easy living for cruisers and non-underwater-based fun, like these beautiful flocks of flamingos. It’s much more than diving: here’s a rundown of how Bonaire hit the mark for our crew.

Welcome to Bonaire!

Clearance was among the easiest anywhere. One office, a three minute walk from the dinghy dock / Karel’s Bar. One clerk’s window. Two forms. 24×7 clearance. NO CHARGE. Although you may have to call officers to show up, as we did – sorry guys! – on Christmas day. This service has nothing to do with cruisers and everything to do with the cruise ships that call in almost every day. Despite the onslaught, Bonaire has avoided turning into a mini-Dutch Caribbean Disneyland (we hear Curacao and Aruba are less unscathed). Dutch style architecture (a few windmills even, in the salt pans) in a walkable town where you only have to go a block from the waterfront for souvenir shops to fade.


Live music outside storefronts on a “Christmas Shopping Night,” a skip away from a spectacular little gelateria. Get the dark dark chocolate. You’re welcome.


Moored off the primary settlement we felt very safe on Bonaire, something that can’t be said about population centers in many Caribbean islands. It’s imperfect (there are reports of some vandalism in town, petty theft) but we walked through the outskirts after dark without concern. We didn’t feel like we HAD to haul the dinghy every night. We still did, much of the time, but it’s good not to feel like a target.

Sunset view to Klein Bonaire off the transom

Sunset view to Klein Bonaire off the transom


Well stocked markets are about a 20-minute walk from the bar / dinghy dock. Too hot to walk? One market arranges a weekly pickup/dropoff shuttling cruisers from waterfont. I’d walk up, then hitchhike back.

We’d provisioned deeply in Martinique (brie! Bordeaux! saucisson!), but could have done very well here. Aside from having a wider, nicer selection of fresh produce, all the usual staples plus tasty Dutch specialties (gouda! stroopwafel! droge worst!) and good value were available between Van den Tweels (upscale) and the Warehouse (great prices).

Everyday life

Everyday practicalities of cruising life were straightforward: most are not inexpensive, but little is cheap in most Caribbean islands. Restaurants? We didn’t even consider them, honestly. Prices weren’t bad, but they weren’t inexpensive, so per our norm we simply opted out. Laundromats on shore ran about $15 per load (we walked, but they’ll give you a ride from the waterfront); fine for catching up, then back to bucket laundry on Totem.

We DID indulge in a night at the movies, thanks to a “do something fun” mad-money gift from my auntie, and it was unforgettable! Will we ever again be in a seated, open-air movie theater? Will we ever again have to pause halfway through the movie while a squall blows through soaking our seats and clothes? Have you ever been in a theater where a live mango tree stood at the end of a row of seats? The Last Jedi was meant to be watched under a sky full of stars.

Bonaire movies


Jamie and I have been busy with coaching clients the last few months, and we need a good internet connection for video calls. Digicel in Bonaire was 4G for the cheapest per-gigabyte rate yet in the Caribbean: under $2/GB! Very handy, and perfect time for some holiday Skyping with family.


Boat business

There’s a finite number of boats here, limited by the restrictions on anchoring (you can’t. end of story). A fixed number of moorings off Kralendijk and a very few transient marina berths are the only options. I’m told right now there’s no room for boats hoping to visit. During our stay in December the mooring field was busy, but seemed to have near daily turnover, and there were always at least a few moorings available. It’s the busy season now: but hurricane season in an island like Bonaire, safely south of the hurricane belt, would be another busy season and demand for a spot probably peaks. I don’t know how many moorings there are on Bonaire, but the crowd control enforced by limited space was nice.

GoogleEarth view of the Kralendijk waterfront,boats on moorings at the dropoff

Google’s satellite view of the Kralendijk waterfront, boats on moorings at the dropoff

On shore, boat specific equipment is a little harder to come by: just one lonely chandlery, the Caribbean Budget Marine chain, but they’d order things in if needed. Hardware stores covered the rest, big-box style.

Pausing to look at flamingoes at the north end of hte island, this little cutie

Pausing to look at flamingos at the north end of the island, this cute little visitor had something to say

Surprising values

Islands that have to import pretty much everything typically don’t offer good value for money; the cost of transportation and taxes/duties hike prices. An unexpected deal was quality gear for snorkeling and diving. As one shop put it: “we’re competing with Amazon.”  Our buddies on Utopia II had a BCD that needed repair; it was about the same price to replace it with a nice new equipment as to shore up of aging gear.


In 10 minutes at an undisclosed location on Bonaire, Jamie found SIXTEEN colors of beach glass. Normal looking beach, not piles of glass, just… remarkable, and unprecedented in our experience.


On the other hand, the plastic bane of our oceans and beaches was sadly omnipresent. The sad reality of our world right now.


For the kids: just lots of fun being with friends, beach glass or plastic or whatever.

Island life

Our perch off town was imbued with a feeling that we were a part of this little community. The small-boat fishing fleet’s dock nearby kept things lively. A sailing school was off the bow.  Totem was used as one end of the starting line for a triathlon; she was a turning mark for a Sunfish race (we have the gelcoat dings to prove it!).

_DSC2825 _DSC2789

We were in Bonaire for the weeks leading up to Christmas, but never really felt the commercial onslaught that happens at home. Homes and businesses put up decorations, I heard a couple of carols; most of the festivity was back on Totem. Except, notably, for the night of he holiday parade. Nothing to make you smile more than what’s basically a small-town parade. Bonaire’s spanned the generations, featured senior home residents and costumed kids  following the truck with Santa’s helpers bearing treats for curbside children.

Island exploring

Not such a good value: rental cars! Prices seemed hiked by the season, and the demand from cruise ships. We rented a truck with Utopia one day, threw (gently invited) the teenagers in the back, and drove a loop around the island.

Loading up for a day of touring

Loading up for a day of touring

Many of Bonaire's feral donkeys, former beasts of burden, are in a large sanctuary

Many of Bonaire’s feral donkeys, former beasts of burden, are in a large sanctuary

They were very keen to introduce themselves through the truck window, asking for carrots

They were very keen to introduce themselves through the truck window, asking for carrots

Most of the island is arid scrub, the home of strikingly colorful lizards

Most of the island is arid scrub, the home of strikingly colorful lizards

...and a few prickly things. Shoes on kids! (they still resist)

…and a few prickly things. Shoes on kids! (they still resist)

Ancient paintings on limestone in a "star watchers" cave

Ancient paintings on limestone in a “star watchers” cave

Learning about Bonaire's biomes, and environmental challenges, from a conservation organization for indigenous parrots

Learning about Bonaire’s biomes, and environmental challenges, from a conservation organization for indigenous parrots. Note, Niall is barefoot. The guide was concerned that we didn’t have “appropriate footwear” but allowed Niall to hike barefoot anyway. No problem for him.

Purple tones to the salt pans at the south end of Bonaire: part of food chain that tints flamingo feathers

Purple tones to the salt pans at the south end of Bonaire: part of food chain that tints flamingo feathers


The water

Right, this was about everything else, and I wrote about the striking underwater world of Bonaire here, but the access as a cruiser is incredible.

Sarah, SV Rhapsody, checks out the mini-reef on a mooring block

Sarah, SV Rhapsody, checks out the mini-reef on a mooring block

Want to swim off the boat? OK. Want to dive daily? OK. Want to do nothing but watch the sunset? OK. It may be particularly missed as we sit at the Marina Santa Marta, where the color and smell deter any interest in swimming. But Bonaire was particularly special this way, even if we were only watching the watery horizon as the sun set.

Cruiser Community

After the crush of boats in the lesser Antilles, the smaller fleet in Bonaire was refreshing. Enough for community and fun, not so much it felt like an overplayed grownup summer camp. Sharing stories with new cruisers and circumnavigators and hopeful future sailors and happy landlubbers alike.

Good times with good humans

Good times with good humans

Gathering for a white elephant Christmas party with fellow sailors: organized by Sail Ho‘s Brita with Rhapsody, Totem, Windancer IV, Chapter Two (their lovely Island Packet 420 is for sale, I’ll happily put anyone interested in contact with them).

With hindsight on Bonaire and Grenada, I’m not sure why the latter is such a gathering point in hurricane season– except to think that people just haven’t gotten to the Dutch Antilles yet, or are intimidated by the bit of distance and never will, or are discouraged by the possible scarcity of mooring. Given the choice as destinations to avoid the worst of seasonal risk, I’d pick Bonaire in a heartbeat.

[update: If we were going back and planned to spend more time in Bonaire, my first stop would be the awesome Addo’s bookstore on Kaya Industria, a short walk from the waterfront. They’ve got a nice selection of English-language books of interest to hte visitor: everything from field guides, to diving references, to local history. Books for children in two or three languages (Papiamento, Dutch, and English) would be fun for adults and kids alike to learn more about Bonaire and better appreciate their stay.

Coloring books, field guides, and more - specific to Bonaire and neighboring Dutch Antilles, at Addo's books in Kralendijk.

Coloring books, field guides, and more – specific to Bonaire and neighboring Dutch Antilles, at Addo’s books in Kralendijk.

Totem is preparing to depart Colombia this week, bound at least for Panama! By next month we’ll be splashing in the Pacific again.

Bonaire’s underwater wonderland

Mairen freediving

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

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

Bonaire location

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

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

Bonaire dive site Map

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

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

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

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


This aft deck taken over by gear

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

Totem floats over the reef

Totem floats over the reef

anchorage- corals


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

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Just hanging out

Just hanging out

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

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

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

Another well-disguised critter… can you see it?

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

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

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


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

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

forest of soft corals fans Black Durgon in the deep blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking west from Martinique

Drone view St Anne to Marin Martinique

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

So good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nautical hub

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

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

Look at that shiny new heat exchanger!

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

Mini TransAt Martinique

Mini Transat boat sailing into the harbor after finishing

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

Loaded up for the next destination


Exploring and fun

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



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

Sainte Anne sunset: kids on the SUP and kayak

Sainte Anne sunset: kids on the SUP and kayak


These besties are making the most of our months together.

_DSC1933 _DSC2271

Puerto Rico

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

St martin anchorage

In Puerto Rico, recovery in progress from the ground:

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

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

Just a little off kilter

Just a little off kilter

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

derm before after

Passage prep

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

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

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

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

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

passage prep meals

Bidding farewell to the beautiful anchorage in Sainte Anne.

Sainte Anne

Caribbean cruising after hurricanes Irma and Maria

The Baths at Virgin Gorda BVIs

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

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

Yelena Rogers St John Photography beautiful beach

St John, USVI, photographed THIS week by Yelena Rogers

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

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

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

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

How do you know where it’s OK to go?

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

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

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

Nanny Cay SH page

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

Where can you help?

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

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

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

Anegada rebuild

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

Pool’s open!

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

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

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

Want more info? check these out:


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

Big picture planning

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

Caribbean post irma-maria

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

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

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

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

Info and resources by Island

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


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

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

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

USVI – St Thomas

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

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

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

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

USVI- St John

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

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

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


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

Caribbean 1500 boats arriving into Nanny Cay, Tortola

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

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


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


SXM- dinghy dock bar- Simpson Bay

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

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


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

Want to join other boats to help?

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

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

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

Folk art and daydreams from Bequia

Sailing upwind in the Caribbean

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

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

Grenada market fruitseller

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

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

sailboat arriving in Bequia

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

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

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

R Williams appliqued apron

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

Dinghy dock Bequia

Dinghy dock at Bequia

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

Rita Williams folk artist

Rita laughed her way through decades of reminiscing!

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

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

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

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

Bequia waterfront and dory

Bequia waterfront… and a wooden dory?

We now return to regularly scheduled cruising adventures


Grenada brings respite to the Totem crew. The last five months have been crazy: bashing against conditions from Bahama to the BVIs, dealing with skin cancer scares in Puerto Rico, running south from hurricanes through the Lesser Antilles, and working the whirlwind of the Annapolis boat show. This frenzied roller coaster was well outside our usual rhythm, even though not much of typical life on Totem could really be characterized as “normal” anyway. Finally, here in Grenada, there’s a strong sense that we’re finally getting back to something resembling our normal. Taking time to get out and enjoy the place we’re in, the company of people around us.



The biggest reason life is especially good right now: KID BOATS. Totem’s younger crew members are so happy to be among a group of other kids. Reuniting with old friends has been exceptionally sweet for the kids (and pretty awesome for me and Jamie, too).  As if converging with these families wasn’t good enough, there are teens. Lots of teens!

Ava and Mairen

Ava and Mairen

There’s a beach to dinghy to and hang out.  Organized volleyball on a sand court at the marina where we’re anchored; there’s a skilled cruisers giving instruction to the kids. Sleepovers…and toasting with your forks over chocolate-chip pancakes the next morning.

Teens/tweens from four different boats

Teens/tweens from four different boats

Late departure (March) from Florida put us behind typical Caribbean route timing; coming through the Bahamas, most of the kid boats we met were going the other direction. Beyond the Bahamas, they’d already jetted to safe territory further south. Well, here they are!

Dinghy full of teens and tweens

Dinghy full of teens and tweens

I’m told this is a “slow year” for kid boats in Grenada. Granted, we’re less dialed into the younger kid fleet, but not feeling a shortage.

Everyday life

A cruiser flock migrates annually to Grenada to wait out the hurricane season in a (relatively) safe zone. One of the less appealing aspects of being among a large group of relatively stationary folks on boats is the culture that seems to spring up around it. The same phenomenon happens in George Town, Bahamas, and other cruiser nooks around the world. Some of this is great, like cruisers sharing their skill sets, from yoga to volleyball. Some is decidedly not, as facets of the mainstream we hoped we’d left behind crop up (plans for anchorage trick-or-treating have as many rules as a homeowner’s association in a gated community!). There is SO MUCH going on: the “events” segment of the morning VHF net lasted 23 minutes recently. People: thats Twenty. Three. Minutes.

Colorful shop inland

Colorful shop inland

Some of the culture/rulesy stuff may grate, but on balance it means positivity in new faces, new stories, new opportunities. Like getting together with a few boats to organize island tours to cool spots: a rum distillery with works dating to the 1800s, a cacao plantation with a chocolate production factory, a string of waterfalls.

Crushing sugar cane

Crushing sugar cane

Or another day, to gather with a few boats to be led by an experienced hand from one bay to another, through a nature preserve (thank you Fatty!).


There’s a great vibe to Grenada in general, friendly and mellow. The easy greetings of a small community, eye contact and a smile. Walking on a country road? Someone will stop to see if you need a ride, just because. I would happily have walked to a meet up the other day but ended up with rides both times, only a couple of minutes into what should have been a half hour walk.

Grenada is lush, a gardeners dream. It’s been really wet, but the rain creates that lush landscape, cascading waterfalls and beautiful flowers. Driving around the island, there’s food everywhere you look: banana trees, breadfruit, papaya, mango, avocado, taro, cassava… and nutmeg, nutmeg trees are everywhere (that’s a nutmeg fruit Mairen’s holding, below).



Float like a butterfly... no wait...

Float like a butterfly… no wait…

It’s sometimes frustrating how wet things are this time of year; more often rain just nudges us slow down and breathe. After so many arid months this year, we soak it in. We’ve been parched.


Rain squalls can drop the temperature to around 80... enough for Siobhan to put on jeans

Rain squalls can drop the temperature to around 80… enough for Siobhan to put on jeans

Squalls mean shower time for Niall!

Squalls mean shower time for Niall!

Squalls also make dramatic photos. The Goodlander's Amphritite, Ganesh

Squalls also make dramatic photos. The Goodlander’s Amphritite 43, Ganesh

Hauling out

We hauled out with just one day’s rest after I got back from the Annapolis boat show: not exactly a break, but deferred maintenance called. It’s almost exactly three years since Totem was last out of the water in Thailand, and new bottom paint was past due. It’s a strange feeling to see all the old paint removed. Yes, the hull needs a paint job too…no, it won’t happen this time around. Or probably the next!

Bare bottom!

Bare bottom!

I”m expecting to have a lot to say about being hauled, the Grenada vs. Trinidad haulout options, what we learned out of the water this last week, and work planned on Totem next… that will have to wait for future updates. We’re splashing today, and Jamie and I have a date to walk around the yard and look at the other boats. Romantic, no? Our version of a date anyway!

Until later… a dose of the great colors of Grenada.

colorful Grenada