Bonaire for cruisers: more than diving

flamingos

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.

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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.

Security

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

Provisioning

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

Connectivity

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.

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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.

Beachcombing

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.

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

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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!).

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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!

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This aft deck taken over by gear

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

Totem floats over the reef

Totem floats over the reef

anchorage- corals

 

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

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Just hanging out

Just hanging out

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

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

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

Another well-disguised critter… can you see it?

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

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

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

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

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

forest of soft corals fans Black Durgon in the deep blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking west from Martinique

Drone view St Anne to Marin Martinique

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

So good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nautical hub

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

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

Look at that shiny new heat exchanger!

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

Mini TransAt Martinique

Mini Transat boat sailing into the harbor after finishing

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

Loaded up for the next destination

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Exploring and fun

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

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

Sainte Anne sunset: kids on the SUP and kayak

Sainte Anne sunset: kids on the SUP and kayak

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These besties are making the most of our months together.

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Puerto Rico

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

St martin anchorage

In Puerto Rico, recovery in progress from the ground:

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

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

Just a little off kilter

Just a little off kilter

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

derm before after

Passage prep

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

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

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

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

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

passage prep meals

Bidding farewell to the beautiful anchorage in Sainte Anne.

Sainte Anne

Caribbean cruising after hurricanes Irma and Maria

The Baths at Virgin Gorda BVIs

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

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

Yelena Rogers St John Photography beautiful beach

St John, USVI, photographed THIS week by Yelena Rogers

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

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

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

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

How do you know where it’s OK to go?

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

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

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

Nanny Cay SH page

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

Where can you help?

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

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

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

Anegada rebuild

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

Pool’s open!

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

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

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

Want more info? check these out:

Security

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

Big picture planning

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

Caribbean post irma-maria

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

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

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

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

Info and resources by Island

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

PUERTO RICO

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

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

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

USVI – St Thomas

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

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

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

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

USVI- St John

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

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

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

BVI

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

Caribbean 1500 boats arriving into Nanny Cay, Tortola

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

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

ANGUILLA

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

SXM

SXM- dinghy dock bar- Simpson Bay

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

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

DOMINICA

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

Want to join other boats to help?

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

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

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

Folk art and daydreams from Bequia

Sailing upwind in the Caribbean

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

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

Grenada market fruitseller

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

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

sailboat arriving in Bequia

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

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

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

R Williams appliqued apron

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

Dinghy dock Bequia

Dinghy dock at Bequia

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

Rita Williams folk artist

Rita laughed her way through decades of reminiscing!

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

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

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

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

Bequia waterfront and dory

Bequia waterfront… and a wooden dory?

We now return to regularly scheduled cruising adventures

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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.

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KIDS KIDS KIDS

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!).

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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).

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flowers

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.

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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

Cruising from the Greater to Lesser Antilles

 

Drone view of Culebra

Figuring out the names of Caribbean islands was as daunting as learning island groups of the South Pacific. First, there’s a whole lot of them! Pinterest Caribbean geograhy 101And then, where does one country end and the next begin? And could I please have a Venn diagram that shows regions and island groups and countries? At least most Caribbean place names have intuitive pronunciation for English speakers (first guesses at cruiser destinations like Kiribati, Papeete, Whangarei, Nadi, Pago Pago, etc. are usually not correct). Cruiser cred points for anyone who can correctly spell these phonetically in the comments!

Quick geography tangent: Antilles is a general term that refers to ALL Caribbean islands, based on the legend of a phantom island—Antillia—that a 15th century Italian-born historian placed in the Atlantic, far to the west from Europe. As boats sailed from Europe to the Americas and the region became better mapped, Antillia gradually disappeared but the general reference for islands to the far west remained.

“Antilles” is less frequently heard than the subset as they are divided into—Greater and Lesser—which are conveniently grouped geographically: Greater Antilles being larger islands to the north (Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica), and Lesser Antilles being the smaller balance scattered to the east and south. The Lesser Antilles are further divided into windward and leeward islands, which include French Antilles and Dutch Antilles, and then there’s the Lucayan archipelago, didja know the ABCs are an island group not just an alphabet, and… right, too easy to get confused!

Most of our travel through the Greater Antilles was a tease of changing plans as we sought safer waters for hurricane season. We may regret postponing a visit to Cuba, as it is increasingly difficult for a US-flagged boat to access. Passing over Hispaniola I truly regret, and acknowledge the crew of Uma for their generous, speedy, thoughtful, and realistic guidance for visiting Haiti. Where armchair sailors who have no Haitian experience pronounced our certain death if we visited, Kika was a voice of reason: sharing contacts from their months in Haiti, annotating maps, suggesting anchorages. Anchorages we looked forward to visiting, until an unexpected weather window for quicker easting opened. And with that window, we skipped across both Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which together comprise Hispaniola) with one lone (but very memorable) stop. Puerto Rico would be similarly abbreviated if it hadn’t been for the matter of urgent health care. When we moved east again, expected to fast track the remaining necessary stops until Grenada. Anyone who knows our speed is laughing right now…we don’t “fast track” anything very well!

Expecting to skip through Puerto Rico’s eastern island of Culebra as just a pit stop, weather dictated otherwise. With the excellent hurricane hole in Salinas a day sail behind it was worth watching to see what the latest wave from Africa would do.

At left, the "spaghetti model" for the low which eventually became hurricane Gert

At left, the “spaghetti model” for the low which eventually became hurricane Gert; at right, the NOAA outlook about a week and a half later

Weather system 99L eventually became hurricane Gert, happily stayed away, but the active picture illustrates reasons behind the frequent pauses…also known as the wonderful opportunity to spend time with people previously known through the interwebs. Sophie and family, who our kids played endless rounds of jump-off-the-bow-swim-back-climb-aboard-repeat.

kids jumping off sailboat

Long awaited was meeting with Sue and Rick of Orion. Sue and I have been corresponding for quite a few years. You can see the solemnity of the occasion when we finally met up.

meetup with Sue and Rick

Anchored more than a week next to Orion in the Dakity bay corner of Ensenada Honda, they shared “their” Culebra. Long time Puerto Rico residents, they know this area intimately and it was a privilege to experience it with their guidance—from visiting a small museum to exploring on the island.

Sunset behind Totem...

Sunset behind Totem…

 

...sunrise in front of Orion.

…sunrise in front of Orion.

Walking in Culebra with Sue & Rick

Walking in Culebra with Sue & Rick

girls and cactus

Coaching clients taking a few weeks on their Dean 44 catamaran joined in. This turned into several fun nights of sundowners (and beyond: would that be moonrisers?), playing at the beautiful little island of Culebrita, and some of the best tacos I’ve had in years. For all those memories, somehow I only ended up with pictures of the tacos… and a cucumber-jalapeno margarita, which was even better than you think. Mimzy crew, that was a lot of fun – we’d like a repeat in the South Pacific!

 

pork belly, beef tongue, and a truly spicy margarita

pork belly, beef tongue, and a truly spicy margarita

After a schedule centered around doctors’ appointments it was nice to fall back into a more normal family routine. Setting up dinner in the solar oven. Cribbage in the cockpit when the afternoon cools off. Jamie and I were on swimming restriction while our stitches healed, but the kids weren’t, and drawing them to the reef for a closer peek was Miss Dakity. That’s the name Sue gave a young flamingo that blew into Culebra earlier in the year and seems to have set up (solo) shop. Fuzzy pic… attempting with a zoom lens from simply way too far away, from a moving platform!

7c setting up dinner cribbage in the cockpit 7a kids swim out 7b Miss Dakity

The unplanned month in Puerto Rico was more pleasant than anticipated, medical stuff notwithstanding. More than that, it zoomed PR way up on the list of “places we could see living someday.” There is a vibe that I’m not sure how to describe: maybe it’s why year after year, Puerto Ricans are listed on a long-term study by the University of Michigan as among the happiest people in the world. There is a friendliness here that’s well over the bar of most. The gregariousness of “Puerto Rican Navy” (affectionate name for weekend powerboaters) dancing on the beach in Culebrita (and leaving no sign of their presence behind). The warmth and care and HOUSECALL by Dr Villa. The smile that greeted meager Spanish, helpful instead of patronizing. Even if it weren’t for the beautiful landscape and history to soak in, we’d be sold.

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Bahamas lookback II: falling short

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pinterest bahamas water dinghyThree months of cruising the Bahamas left many impressions. After too much time on the mainland, escaping east across the Gulf Stream felt like freedom: a refreshing change in outlook, a new place to sink into and explore – one that several circumnavigators we respect claimed among their favorites. There’s a lot to love about these islands (our favorite features summarized here). That said, it left us wanting. This is at least partly a case of poorly set expectations; we are also burdened (while blessed) by the tremendous depth and breadth of places we’ve experienced over the years. It’s not much, but a few aspects stand out.

The color of the water in the Bahamas is legendary. Astronauts like Chris Hadfield marveled that “from space, the Bahamas is the most beautiful place on Earth.” And when you’re looking down, even the less profound level of a boat deck, the blues are no less surreal than pictures suggest. It was what lay beneath.

Part of that is a question of clarity. It’s nice, but didn’t earn superlative reviews. White sand reflects that brilliant turquoise back at shallow depths, sparkling clarity from the top view, but suggesting more transparent conditions than exist when looking horizontally through the water. Here, it fell short. This picture of the reef in front of Totem on Great Inagua offers an example to illustrate. See those dark spots in front of us? They look like nothing more than black lumps from the boat, and “uninteresting” compared to the vibrant blue, but in fact these were coral heads positively teeming with life.

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Those black lumps were the good bit. The rest was mostly sand (and an entertaining carpet of garden eels wiggling under Totem). But these coral heads provided the most rich and interesting snorkeling we did in those three months (a close second, but tempered Nassau day-trippers: the carpet of soft corals and other plants and critters padding the exterior of the Thunderball grotto).

More disappointing than missed expectations on clarity was the dearth of life underwater. There were epic discrete experiences, like swimming with dolphins: the Atlantic spotteds that came to visit Jamie as he swam to check our anchor set off Bimini, the solo female who didn’t want to stop swimming with us in George Town. After being skunked on manatee sightings in Florida, watching a resident cow lazily drift through the water at Great Harbour Cay marina was magical. There was the tiger shark that wound a lazy path by Totem in Thompsons Bay, Long Island, and offered a blasé fin to the curious who tracked by dinghy to observe it further.

swim with dolphins

These will stick with us. But isolated examples aside, most of what we saw underwater was sand…just not very interesting. South Pacific underwater venturing was far more fruitful; in the Bahamas we saw dead coral, few fish, and a single top-level predator. The reefs probably look fine if you don’t know the difference, instead of a depressing reminder of negative human impact. Is it asking too much? Here in a comparably murky anchorage in Puerto Rico, Niall talks wistfully about missing his daily swim in Bahamian water.

Kids prepare to dive at Great Inagua

Kids prepare to dive at Great Inagua

A temperamental Tohatsu limited our reach and may have impacted our view. The trusty outboard has since been repaired, but during our Bahamas months it lacked the oomph to get our crew on a  plane. Without the reach that speed offers, we didn’t access what may have been more interesting underwater spots.

There’s not a lot of variation along the islands, mostly scrubby, arid, and flat. Once you look up from the water, little captures the imagination. You can always go for a walk, but what’s to draw interest in shore side exploring? The limestone caves were cool. There were ruins – the stone foundations left by early colonial settlers, the more recent reminders hurricane force winds, all with stories to tell. I also have no doubt there are hidden gems. I wish we’d found more: something to unlock more insight into the history, the natural bones, and the fauna so we could better appreciate this place. Hints teased: the giant centipede spotted on a hike, an interesting winging by.

Low drama on shore; high drama in the sky

Low drama on shore; high drama in the sky

The Bahamas is not a cultural destination. It’s not why people go. That makes it unfair as a disappointment, maybe, but exploring what makes a place culturally distinct highlights our cruising life. There IS fascinating history, but it felt buried away, or forgotten, or unimportant. Like the morning we spent driving around Long Island looking for the ruins of an old plantation hinted about on the tourism website. We went back and forth along the stretch of road that passes it and asked half a dozen people where it was… despite being within a small radius of the location and nobody could direct us.

Countries are experienced through taste buds as much as eyes. Bahamian staples were reminiscent of the US south: grits, and everything fried. Not too exciting, but the nature of the soil makes it impossible to grow much. Instead, what’s fresh comes from the sea. The national icon, queen conch, is on every menu. You can’t go to the Bahamas and not have conch! But it’s a fishery in collapse, with no season and poor definitions around legal size (what’s a “well-formed” lip, anyway? And say you knew that lip is supposed to be 15mm, would you know where/how to measure?). We tried it: once from a vendor, once by foraging ourselves. The bones of conch piled high behind shacks serving tourists in Bimini… all taken too soon. Not a market we want to participate in! On the other hand: mahi mahi served up hours after it was swimming, a delectable reminder of sustainable fisheries.

Bone pile, Bimini.

Bone pile featuring juveniles behind a Bimini conch shack

20/20 hindsight on any adventure is unique to the individual. In our case: generally speaking, the places and experiences that rewarded the most were those that took us further off the more traveled path. We’d seek those out, and we’d work harder to meet Bahamians. These go hand in hand: it’s harder to get below surface level where transient visitors traffic through, and tourism thwarts the deeper relationships with transactional encounters.

"Namesake," she called me, as we share a first name - if we ever make it back to Long Island...

“Namesake,” she called me, as we share a first name – if we ever make it back to Long Island…

This post has, frankly, been painful to write. I don’t want to sound like a whiner, complaining about what didn’t measure up in islands that so many love. I chatted this morning with the mom from Sandflea (Sailboat Story), Tambi, who we met in Eleuthera. As she rightfully points out: it’s hard not to love the Bahamas. And we did love those three months, it just… came up short of the superlative reviews. I get it, though. Most cruisers have particularly rose-tinted reflections on their first foray. For many who raved, the Bahamas were their first (or only) cruise from the US. By the same token: we still wax on about our love for the Pacific coast of Mexico, and while it shines on its own merits, the memories are surely magnified through the lens of our early-cruiser-eyes as the place we first stretched…and were rewarded.

I offer this as a counterpoint to my love letter about the chords the Bahamas struck. Whether it’s expectation setting or a reality check, I hope this offers helpful perspective for other hopefuls.

Cruising the Bahamas: beauty at our back door

Girls hiking in the Bahamas

snorkeling coral reef BahamasHard won miles to windward from the cerulean blue of our last Bahamian anchorage, some perspective on our months in the islands is sinking in. I went in with a mixed bag of expectations: friends who have sailed around the world claim it’s among the best cruising to be had (don’t we all love our first major destination?). Other cruisers who don’t have that far-reaching basis for comparison rave about it (was there narrower base of comparison at play?). It put me on guard: were we REALLY going to like it that much? How could islands so close to the USA possibly offer that kind of exceptional experience?

Confession: I spent too much of our time there being jaded and just needed to get over it. So what if the Bahamas didn’t measure up in discrete specifics to more exotic locales? On its own merits, the islands are a spectacular cruising ground, and there is a lot to love. These are the reasons it stood out in our experience.

It’s spectacular. There is almost nothing more to say. We’ve seen a lot of mesmerizing water on our way around the world, and the Bahamas (tie: Bermuda) is at the top of the heap. It’s as though it is lit from within: and it is, in a way, as sunlight reflecting off a white sandy bottom is what lends the vivid blues. Stunning shades of aqua in the winding inner channel of the Exumas are now my benchmark. A gift for cruisers starting out from the US east coast: their first international step can transport them to some of the best! UNDERwater is another story, but we’ll save that for later.

Photos can't do the colors justice, but offer a suggestion

Photos can’t do the colors justice, but offer a suggestion

It’s a DAY trip! Sure, there is a meaningful bit of water to cross and the Gulf Stream deserves all the respect and planning you can give it. But at the end of the day, well… at the end of the day in which you depart Florida, you can be relaxing on the hook in Alice Town or West End, and rightfully feel like you have transported yourself a world away to an island paradise where you can beachcomb for intricate shells, paddle in turquoise water, gawk at mountains of conch shells, maybe even swim with dolphins (all features of our point of arrival, Bimini).

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How to describe the feeling of being approached by a playful dolphin?

This proximity also helped when Jamie and I had to fly out. I was gone a week for the Annapolis spring boat show; Jamie hopped around Florida and the Caribbean checking out boat listings with a few of our coaching clients. Even in what felt like relatively remote islands, flights were easy to book on relatively short notice and fares weren’t terrible. What a great way to cruise in a place that’s relatively easy to have visitors! And if you’re sailing back to the US, it’s likely to be with the wind at your back…and an easier task to find a date to cross the Gulf Stream in comfort.

If you came for the sand you’ll be in paradise. If you came for the avocados to make guacamole to go accompany nacho chips that cost $11/bag, then carry on to Puerto Rico!

Sure, you may want to provision up anything you must have; you might not find it and it will cost more when you do. But it’s a corollary of “close to home,” these islands aren’t in the middle of an ocean. They’re regularly supplied by mail boats (or planes). Costs can be eyepopping (especially for our hungry crew…wow the kids were easier to feed when they were little!), but that’s if you’re trying to recreate your Publix shopping cart at a market on Eleuthera. Mitigate expense with advance provisioning or switching your diet to local style: market rates or government subsidy keep many staples affordable. Get out the fishing gear. Shift your habits. Eat on board instead of ashore.

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Conch at a pier on Eleuthera: 7 for $10

Ultimately, availability wasn’t as bad as I expected from reports. In George Town, it as possible to get everything from kale to mushrooms and shallots. Markets in Staniel Cay had surprising breadth: asparagus anyone? (thanks I’m sure to the higher-end charters frequenting the area and providing a ready market to supply.)

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Bounty after the mail boat: George Town, Great Exuma

If you need boat parts, it’s a little different. People don’t need diesel mechanics the way they need food. But help is there, and parts are just a DHL shipment away. Many corners of the world are a lot more complicated, and lot slower / more costly, if it’s necessary to source and deliver boat bits. So you may have to wait a bit…there are few places that wouldn’t be lovely to be required to wait around!

We started out by using our existing US T-Mobile plans. T-Mobile’s customer service crowed about the 4G we’d be living in the Bahamas, leveraging the BTC cellular network that’s already in place. Well, there was broad coverage. That’s incredible, really, considering the dispersed islands and thin population. But the service was throttled back to 2G. Fine if you’re just checking email, but really not good enough for what it cost. No problem: swapping our T-Mobile SIM card for a BTC SIM was affordable and easy. $15 for the SIM, and during our stay, 15 gigabytes cost only $35 – much better value than our paused T-Mobile plan and about the cheapest per-GB rate yet.

Despite being entirely off pace with the seasonal flow of the Bahamas, the islands lived up to their reputation as a social hub for cruisers. Our timing meant that we experienced it on a smaller scale (George Town peaks with more than 300 boats; there were maybe a dozen transients when we came in). But we were able to meet up with “internet friends” passing on the way to the states, and make new friends who, like us, had plans to point to the Caribbean for hurricane season.

Sundowners on Tookish

An overdue meetup with the Tookish crew, plus friends

US east coasters in particular seem to make a big deal about shallow Bahamas water limiting access to all but shallow draft boats. Depths require attention, but it is NOT a big deal. Shallower draft boats can anchor closer to the beach. Once in a while they can take a shortcut that we can’t, or skip waiting for higher tide. Repeat: it is not a big deal. We draw 6’; we spent time with a boat drawing 7’, neither of us felt compromised in our anchoring or locked out from cool spots.

underwater snorkeling

Siobhan peeks under Totem’s keel: at times we only had a few inches at low tide

The Bahamas was largely a straightforward place to cruise. Same language, much of the same cultural context, it’s safe, there are oodles of blogs and other resources to help plan a trip. Currency is 1:1 with the US dollar, and US currency is accepted everywhere. It really does not get much easier! But I can appreciate that for cruisers who are reaching beyond the US coast for the first time, it may feel …not easy. And of course, it’s Not America, and with that may creep in some uncertainty. The cure for that is the Waterway Guide. Updated annually, it includes exhaustive detail to relieve any worries a new cruiser (or, newly international cruiser) might have from the clearance process (an overall view and details what to do / where to go at each port of entry) to understanding the unique dynamics of the tide in the Bahamas (they have a great description that helped it make perfect sense to me) – along with all that normal logistical guide stuff of places to go, conch shacks to patronize, and reefs to snorkel. It’s the only book you need.

boats anchored bahamas

Late-season flock anchored off Monument Beach, George Town

The same folks who think you need shoal draft boats to cruise the Bahamas warn about bad charts and currents and tides and dragons. Dunno about the dragons but just like depth, current/tide merely requires attention. It’s not unduly complicated, but may be new for boaters accustomed to channel markers wherever you might need them and aids to navigation for any hazard. Possibly that’s why the Explorer charts have developed an otherwise puzzling cult following. After being at the receiving end a mountain of FUD, we finally conceded to buy a set. They WERE good charts, but along our winding path from Bimini through the Exumas to Great Inagua, Navionics charts (used with the iNavX app) were pretty much spot on (save a few places where we found more depth than they indicated). And speaking of FUD, that’s what Explorer throws at boaters who just want to anchor. In one anchorage after another Explorer reported bad holding where we set the hook very well, thank you. They also advertise a lot of marinas…

We maxed out the three months we were granted on entry to the Bahamas. What we didn’t max out where the opportunities to explore. Always good to leave something wanting? One aspect is certain: the further away from the US we got, the better we liked the Bahamas. Had our earlier plans not relied on pauses and airports while Jamie and I took care of business, I kinda think we might have tipped over into full-fledged the Bahamas cheerleaders. There were just a few things that held us back, though, and that’s the next post.

Stocking Island Exumas Bahamas drone

Drones-eye-view to the north at Stocking Island, Exumas

Distance is relative: upriver to Washington DC

Family walking by Capitol building

You’re going to Washington DC with your boat? You know that’s going to take days, right? It’s really far away!

We heard this from nearly every individual around Annapolis that we told of our plans to take Totem up the Potomac. From Annapolis, it’s about four days of motoring (if you’re lucky, some sailing).  I’m sure that once upon a time, when our cruising life was contained in long weekends or vacation trips, we would have regarded the time it takes to go south in the Chesapeake Bay, and then north again, as “really far” too.

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Our bigger issue is that it’s getting cold, now that we’ve cracked into November.

COLD.

Diggin’ out the old oversized so you can layer under them foulies cold. It dipped into the 30s overnight in this pic.

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When we meet people here at home who are amazed at the distance our family has traveled, I have trouble accepting the recognition. I remember well enough when a few hundred miles WAS “really far.” Kind of like how that first overnight jaunt feels a little scary. You overthink the watch schedule, forget something you shouldn’t, and have just enough jitters enough that nobody really sleeps anyway. You string together a few more daytrips than usual to make tracks. And there’s a point along the way when the rhythm feels natural, and suddenly…going “really far” is not such a big deal.

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We anchored for a few nights at St Mary’s, MD, for Niall to tour the college and meet with admissions, and for the rest of us to explore the historic town. Founded by 300-odd settlers in the 1630s, it’s now carefully preserved including re-enactment of 17th century settler life by costumed docents. A replica of the 17th-century trading ship Maryland Dove, one of two ships which made up the first expedition from England to Maryland, awaited.

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Maryland Dove had really informed guides to help us understand the vessel in the context of it’s time. Anybody know what this is?

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Because it’s standard issue on boats of this era, and something I’d never encountered before, but really, really fascinating. Go ahead, guess here or on our Facebook page post! I’ll add it to the comments….EVENTUALLY. ?

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How cruising kids boatschool, example #724: spending the day exploring a national historic landmark, having 1:1 conversations with the staff who interpreted of daily life of the early settlers and indigenous  Yaocomaco  who lived here. Their rich information makes the skeleton structures feel real, the archeology sites tangibly important to preserving this slice of the past.

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Siobhan and the 17th century seaman reenactment character… shoeless.

The next anchorage was a little bay tucked on the east side of the Potomac, 30ish miles south of DC. Another reason it was well worthwhile to take Totem up here instead of day-tripping in traffic from Annapolis: Mallows Bay is the final resting place for more than 230 ships, mostly of which were built for WWI. The war ended, they were considered useless and scuttled…burned to the waterline and sunk.

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It is surreal.

We paddle right past the bones in our dinghy, in water so shallow it threatens the tubes of the RIB.

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During WWII, Bethlehem Steel built a salvage operation to wrest scrap from the mostly wooden vessels: that left a mark, too. Today this bow is home to a massive (9′ diameter?) osprey nest.

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The beaches around Chesapeake Bay are full of fossilized shark’s teeth. We tried.

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It’s stops like this that make me grateful we can take time. Whatever semblance of a schedule we have now is driven by a balance between wanting to make the most of the opportunity to spend time in the US capital…and not getting too cold.

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The Totem madrasa is in session. Actually, Jamie was giving a civics lesson.

We’re now 100 up the Potomac river. This is further inland than we have ever been on Totem. And there’s a warm weather break, thankfully. So surreal to see the Washington Monument in front of Niall, as he takes the helm when we anchored off DC.

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Shirtsleeve weather. Enjoying it while we can!

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And although the rest of the southbound fleet has basically left us in the dust, we’re planning to spend a few weeks here. Why? Because we CAN, and because the learning opportunities are outrageous! We are trying to limit ourselves to One Thing Per Day, because otherwise… total overload. And we have the luxury of time…to soak places in without going numb from the input.

Day one was at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History with Dr Christopher Mah. Introduced by a mutual friend a few years ago when we were trying to ID some of the interesting critters spotted underwater, he gave us an unforgettable behind-the-scenes tour. This invertebrate biologist is deeply respected in his field, and I feel tremendously grateful for the perspective he gave us on his work and the NMNH.

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Storage areas are like Raiders of the Lost Ark. OH, the treasures within!

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…and the treasures just sitting out, dated generations past, named by explorations you would recognize. History in the vaults.

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Another day, we gave a presentation in this room at the Department of Homeland Security to a range of senior officials from a variety of disciplines. A lucky opportunity after one attended our marina meet-n-greet presentation near Annapolis a couple of weeks ago. We really enjoy sharing from our experiences, and had fun tuning a few stories for the audience: piracy, working with officials in foreign countries, that time we befriended the families of the secret police tasked with following us in a corner of SE Asia.

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Walking the mall with Annapolis friends, checking out the Air & Space museum in DC…

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…ahead of visiting the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space museum near Dulles, thanks to friends from near Baltimore. MINDBLOWING. This panorama of the view at entry is just a teeny glimpse into how massive and amazing it is (thank you Scott & Sara!).

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Here’s another perspective on the massive scale at Udvar-Hazy: the space shuttle Discovery… that’s Niall, circled in orange, at bottom right.

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dsc01623Today’s destination: the capitol. Arranging a tour through our senator… well actually, I think the path/topics are not hugely different from the tour you’d get with the general public. But we had a smart intern, a small group with our family plus 2 others (vs a couple dozen), and WE GOT TO RIDE THE COOL SECRET TROLLEY.

This is just the first five days. We’ve got a bunch more. And DC has what feels like a bottomless supply of experiences, learning, history, unforgettable things to see and do. That question about why we’d go “really far” to be here just needed to be pulled out of the context of weekend/holiday sailing. Being able to go slow is our luxury, and not having a lot of traditional luxury in life, we’re going to revel the sh*t out of this one.

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At least two more weeks here. So yeah, we’ll be cold. But when else can we do this again? And how crazy/cool to be in DC for the elections?

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Hey, we’re in Huffington Post! Check out the article here, it’s full of pictures from eight years of cruising.