Circumnavigation: FAQs from Totem’s circle of the globe

Courtesy flags reaching from Totem’s bow to masthead flutter in the breeze, a colorful strand representing most of the countries we’ve visited while sailing around the world. It’s still hard to believe that last week we completed a circumnavigation. Already hundreds of miles further north, I look out from our cockpit at the comforting familiarity of the mountain range on the south side of Banderas Bay. In many ways, returning here has the feel of a homecoming: this anchorage in La Cruz is where we departed in 2010 for a 19 day passage to French Polynesia.

Last night our family ventured into town, grateful to find little has changed in the cobbled streets and colorful storefronts. A few more restaurants belie growth but fundamentally it is the same. Even our favorite street taco feed, now named “La Silla Roja” (The Red Chair) for the bright plastic seats set in the road next to tables clad in red checkered tablecloth. The tacos were as delicious as we remembered, washed down with ballena of icy Pacifico.

The rush has not worn off and there are complex feelings to process about this milestone. Meanwhile, some questions coming up on repeat. I hope I can answer the most frequent among them here while sharing a few of our own reactions.

Statistically speaking

  • Duration: 3,520 days (9.64 years) from departure on August 21, 2008, to crossing the track on April 7, 2018. But that track was made back on February 4, 2010 … chalking our loop up at 8 years, 2 months, 3 days if you slice it that way…including about a year and a half parked in Australia to work and refill the cruising kitty.
  • Distance: 56,806 miles / 49,363 nautical miles / 91,420 kilometers
  • Days underway: 815
  • Nights at sea: 201
  • Countries/territories: 47
  • Islands: 269
  • “Places”: 559

How old were the kids when you started?

When we sailed away, the kids were four, six, and nine. We start birthday season in the next couple of weeks and they’ll turn 14, 16, and 19.

Kids in 2008, and this past year

What’s your favorite place?

The impossible question that everyone asks! We tend to like where we are; it’s hard to pick a standout above all others. Some places are unforgettable for epic snorkeling or diving, others for cultural interest, another for history or human encounters, another for delicious food. But when we talk about favorite places, a few consistently hit the top five: we love Mexico (safe, friendly, affordable, mmmm tacos), Papua New Guinea (the people, the culture), and African destinations feature prominently (Comoros, so much to plumb; Madagascar, endlessly fascinating and beautiful; South Africa, complex and beguiling).

What did you miss on the first circle that you want to see on the second?

Best about this question is the correct assumption we’re not finished cruising! To a one, our inclinations is to pass on the usual South Pacific hurricane season destinations and head for Micronesia instead. I’d love to go back to Taiwan (where I lived in the 80s and 1990) and hear great things about cruising in Japan. We missed the Med, but it’s the Baltic and North Sea that have an allure. And then, South America! Basically: we missed most of the world the first time around, as that skinning line on our world map attests… there is so much to see.

Approaching the line in Zihuatanejo

What’s the worst maintenance problem?

In a valiant move for a Best Husband Ever award, Jamie takes care of all maintenance and repair on the heads (toilets). It is a stinker of a job. Thank you sweetie, you know how much I love you!

What was the most difficult weather?

The worst was the passage from Australia to Paupa New Guinea; for the last three days, we had sustained winds up to 45 knots and seas at 4 meters (the occasional gusts over 50 and 5m seas thrown in for fun). More about that passage in this post from October 2012. The coast of Colombia is a close second, the challenge of 4-5 meter seas compounded when our steering cable broke and we had to “hand steer” by punching buttons on the autopilot.

Dolphins play at the bow heading north from Zihuatanejo towards La Cruz

Did you have any scary encounters where you didn’t feel safe?

A few. The scariest was when a powerboat lost control in Avalon, Catalina (California), and plowed through a mooring field where we were pinned. There was the time we got separated from Siobhan (then age 8) at the mall in the massive Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. There have been ports where we took the precaution to lock ourselves in at night, but only a few; we avoid places like that. (Some posts on safety here, and on weapons aboard here.)

What’s next?

More cruising! What, this awesome but man-made milestone means we should just stop a fulfilling way of life? I don’t think so.

This summer, Totem will be hauled out in the Sea of Cortez for some spa time and we’ll road trip the west coast and spend a few months in the Seattle area. Niall will head to college (not committed to a school yet, but probably very soon), and we’ll return to Totem in the fall one crew member short.

Then what? We’d like to go back to the South Pacific, and a Pacific lap is tempting (Taiwan! Japan!), but think it’s more likely we’ll spend a couple of years in Mexico and Pacific coast of the Americas. The islands sing a siren song, but proximity to the US helps us best manage needs for family and finances. Our ongoing plans are always contingent on three things:

  1. everyone aboard wants to do this
  2. we are healthy enough to do this
  3. we can string it together financially

It’s always possible that one of those will change, and on very short notice, our plans would as well. It’s just not what we expect anytime soon.

Near term, Jamie and I will be at the Annapolis Boat Show next week (and again in the fall). Sign up for one of our seminars, or if you’ll be around, sing out! We’re offering seminars at Cruisers U and are looking forward to checking out the show.

We hosted a Facebook live event a couple of hours after closing the loop. You don’t need to be a Facebooker to watch the recording.

 

 

The best mail services for cruisers

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pinterest mail servicesWhat do you do about mail while cruising? A fixed postal address is kind of handy, even when your lifestyle is footloose. (photo above: one of the few remaining Royal Mail Ships, the St Helena, anchored of Jamestown).  Even though most correspondence is digital, a few necessities make a real address important:

  • Voter registration
  • Bank / credit card accounts (electronic statements, of course, but try opening an account without an address!)
  • Vessel documentation
  • Insurance
  • Taxes and tax forms (can’t fill out a W9 without one…might not get paid without a W9)
  • Publishers/customers who insist on mailing checks
  • Driver’s license
  • International clearance (you almost always need to fill an address in somewhere on the forms. OK, you could make up a Mickey Mouse address, but it’s best to play by the rules when we’re guests in another country)

That’s not a big list, and it represents only a handful of pieces of mail per month, but it’s still unavoidable. Also, thanks to Jay Campbell (cruiser/photographer/lawyer) for pointing out that financial institutions are now getting tighter about enforcing the Patriot Act requirement for a residential address…better to get it now, than have a problem later. At least there are a lot of easy virtual mailbox services to choose from! Chatting with a woman last week who circumnavigated in the 80s/90s, when it was a complicated process involving a friend/family member, international forwarding hassle/cost/delays, and the nearest American Express office. Thank goodness THAT has changed!

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Town mailbox, Koh Phayam, Thailand

So, how do you pick a mail service? On the surface, they all work about the same way: you get a physical address where your mail lands. Envelopes are scanned and available to review online. You decide if an envelope should be opened for scanning contents. If a piece of mail is physically neede (like a replacement credit card, vessel documentation), forward whenever you want; otherwise, click to trash.

I went through the due diligence to research different services recently when I considered changing ours, and share the results to help others. Factors I looked for:

  • Address location
  • Monthly fee
  • Included pieces of mail per month
  • Any bonus mail / concierge services
Gen-u-ine post box at the top of Diana's Peak, St Helena

Gen-u-ine post box at the top of Diana’s Peak, St Helena…South Atlantic ocean

Other factors being mostly equal (a scan is a scan), the physical address is key: is there a personal tie to a particular state you want to maintain for voting or licensing? Or are you looking for income preservation by “moving” to an income-tax-free state? Unsurprisingly, several services are based in the tax-free states of Washington, Florida, Nevada or Texas (one service, Traveling Mailbox, has addresses in all four!).  (Families: FYI, your home state bears no relevance to homeschooling regulations you are obligated to follow…only the regulations of the state in which you are physically present).

Looking at cruiser-friendliness and good value, three services stand out. The “annual” figure is my way to make sense of variable monthly fees by pricing the 12-month rate for a fictional account with two addresses, based on 20 pieces of mail (20 scanned envelopes) per month, from which five pieces (total of 20 pages) needed to be scanned. It showed some surprising differences from the at-a-glance monthly fees that seemed useful.

best mail services

Dockside Solutions: Dockside Solutions bubbles up as an excellent service that ticks all boxes at a good value, and really understands the cruiser market. Among other cruisers using Dockside, Pacific Sailors Mike and Verena Kellner have have been customers for years. “Dockside Solutions has all the usual services you would expect, like scanning, forwarding, etc, but they also host cruiser get-togethers at their shop! It’s more like a community.” I think it’s especially cool that owner, Angela, keeps a map showing the locations of her clients all around the world…it’s clear that she loves what she does.

Saint Brendan’s Isle:  Most cruisers know Saint Brendan’s Isle because they’ve focused on the cruiser and RV market for years. The Boat Galley’s Carolyn Shearlock is a fan and has great post all about it. They’ll assist with establishing residency, too, so you can keep your driver’s license and more. Florida is another income-tax-free state, which makes it a good candidate. You do have to be there in person to change residency, however.

Traveling Mailbox: Traveling Mailbox stands out as by far the best value among all the services. They’re under the radar for cruisers (well, everything except SBI seems to be), but shouldn’t be, considering the relatively low fee for the same services. I learned about them from Colin, a road warrior with an international bent, who has used them for a couple of years now and has been very pleased with the rapid turnaround (as little as three hours) on scan requests. Helpful if you’d like to move on from that anchorage with good wifi, but need to see your mail first! This is also the only service I’m aware of that offer a mobile app to help manage your inbox.

Other services met basic needs, but fell short in one way or another – commented in the notes here:

next best mail services

A mention for the service we use, Earth Class Mail. Great interface, gobs of options, nice humans responding when we have a question, addresses all over the place. They were the only virtual mailbox offering a Washington state address when we took off, and their service has been awesome. Yet I’d be unlikely to choose them again, because their prices have shot up as they target businesses instead of individuals. We are grandfathered into old pricing which keeps our rate competitive, but at some point I suspect that a low-value-customers like us will get squeezed out. If you want more services and aren’t price sensitive, they’re an excellent option, but others are a lot more affordable and offer all the services cruisers or full time travelers need. Along similar lines, US Global Mail is a premium rate relative to other services, but offers a relatively speedy turnaround of scanned documents: as soon as 15 minutes to within a few hours or the request. For some, that feature may be worth paying for (most services have a 24-hour turnaround, but what if you’re trying to leave port?).

Credit where it’s due: Thoughtful information that helped me came from this post from Colin’s Work Smart and Travel blog, and the source he started from Josh at Travel China Cheaper – check them out for more details and other experiences.

Apartment mailboxes: Penang, Malaysia

Apartment mailboxes: Penang, Malaysia

Disclaimer: Traveling Mailbox provides affiliate links. I used one here, which means if you click through and sign up with them, I’ll eventually get a little kickback. Affiliate links have exactly nothing to do with my opinions on the blog.

The problem with cruising kids and socialization

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“But what about socialization?” People unfamiliar but curious about cruising lifestyle often ask this about our children. We’ve done a few presentations about our travels during our first month back in the USA, and can almost guarantee the question of our kids’ socialization will come up in the Q&A afterwards.

Tucked into comfortable chairs on a friend’s porch last week, we compared notes on our two families’ cruising experiences. The Reys have alternated cruising their classic Huckins, Cortado, with travels to Europe—building worldschooling experiences for their kids while staying close to Tony’s work. A dozen yards away, our collective tribe of six kids aged 11 to 17 laughed over a Harry Potter trivia game before abandoning the porch to play basketball in the driveway. Listening to them shoot hoops by headlights in the fading light, these kids easily interacted across a wide age range, weren’t phased by gender, and were not reticent to engage adults (or other kids more than a couple of years apart in age). It’s one example, but it’s typical, and seems to me they’re pretty well socialized.

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The only problem with cruising kids and socialization is that the myth they will be inadequately socialized persists.

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Playing “horsies” on the bow with Zada: Mexico, 2009

By flickering candlelight, we muddled over the subject of socialization. Lynne & Tony’s response is one of my favorites, too. They like to return a different question: “How did you like junior high school? What about high school?” for most of us, those weren’t overwhelmingly positive social experiences, except maybe with rose-tinted hindsight. Why not just skip over a whole pile of angst while raising and educating kids who are self-confident and secure?

I like to flip this question another way, too. Why is it presumed better socialization to put a couple of dozen kids the same age into a classroom with a single adult? Does a narrow band of peer-dominated socialization provide optimal social growth? I don’t think so, and research agrees.

The question generally comes from unaware curiosity. I suspect we are imagined off in the middle of nowhere, alone in our travels, interacting overwhelmingly just within our family unit. It’s sometimes true, but it’s the exception. Most of our time is spent “somewhere,” among the company of other cruising families on an extended field trip. Our kids have to work out conflicts, and appreciate the value of friendships. They more frequently face the social challenge to make new friends. They readily engage others across age and gender, and their communication benefits from routinely socializing with adults. Everyday life informs them about the “real world.”

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cruising kids gather for a group sketching session – Malaysia, 2014

It does take work to place yourself in the company of other kid boats. On a Facebook forum for cruising families recently, one parent wondered why, after months in the popular cruising grounds of the Bahamas, they did not encounter a single cruising family. As newbie cruisers, this family didn’t realize you can’t expect it to happen organically: it takes some effort, some advance research and contacts. And then, you have to be flexible in your plans. (How to do this another story, and a section of Voyaging with Kids is devoted to the topic.)

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Rough housing on a lawn in Nantucket: July, 2016

Being solo is fine for a while—months, even. But it can be tough over time, especially for singleton kids. It’s changed our routing plans many times, in big and small ways. We’ve seen the need for their child to be among a larger peer group push families to stop cruising altogether. I’m sure the fact our kids have each other as peers and playmates has made our stretches away from other cruisers easier.

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Kids jetting off on adventures! Comoros, 2015

In fact, there are a lot of other cruising families “out there,” and our kids get to hang out with other kids most of the time. I expect it to be harder the next few years, because older boat kids are less common: the sweet spot seems to be from around 6 to 12. (I’m still amazed that we managed to be around a more than a dozen of tween and teen cruisers during our Indian Ocean crossing year!)  It will take effort to find and connect with other kids, unless we make the tradeoff to go our own way.

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Kids from three boats prep a foraged dinner: Indian Ocean, 2015

This paints a rosy picture. Socialization is more multidimensional, and about individual personalities as well as environment. But our kids are growing as social beings in a very different way than their peers at home. We have to be open with them about these differences, so they don’t expect seamless interactions now, or transitions later. They are largely outsiders to mainstream culture. They don’t know the names of the latest celebrity newsmakers, musical hits, or fashion trends. But for the most part, it’s because they don’t care: they’re not in a bubble, and they can find these things online, and choose what’s important to them to follow.

Boat kids e.Exploring WWII wrecks: Rabaul, PNG, 2012

Boat kids e.Exploring WWII wrecks: Rabaul, PNG, 2012

It’s intimidating to make the leap to raise children differently, and we’ve gone WAY off the path of the norm. Back on Lynne & Tony’s porch, I think about hearing the “what about socialization?” question, and how it makes my mama bear hackles come up, ready to defend my cubs. I have to remember, it’s not negative judgment—just a lack of understanding. Our differently socialized kids are doing fine, thank you.

Making an impression at the Seychelles Yacht Club

Making an impression at the Seychelles Yacht Club, 2015