Mochilas and memories in Colombia

girl holding a toucan

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

We met online

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

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

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

Local friendships

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

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

Road tripping

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

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

kids on the bridge cartagena

Kids getting silly in the old town

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

Hamster therapy

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

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

Steeped in history

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

He slept here, too.

Lime with that?

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

cut limes with soup course

Lime with that?

Not just for tourists

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


Not just for ad campaigns

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

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

Passage notes: westbound across the Caribbean

Sailing wing and wing

_DSC2312Totem is sailing toward sunsets again. Turning towards the Dutch Antilles from Martinique was more westbound than south. This passage brought back more than a familiar angle for sunrises and moonsets: it’s also…

  • downwind sailing for the first time in 18 months
  • first passage with more than one night at sea in 18 months
  • a nearly full moon! so nice on a passage, and something we had a knack for mis-timing
  • new destinations, instead of retracing a track

The 470nm distance was slightly awkward. It’s just long enough to necessitate a third night at sea. The benefit is a chance to get back into a passage rhythm that’s been absent for some time, something that seems to happen around the second or third day.

The start was slow; it took time to get out of the wind shadow of Martinique. Once into steady trades, the genoa was poled out and Totem took off. We spent almost the entire passage that way, much of it wing-and-wing. Leaving on a Wednesday, arriving on a Saturday, conditions were such that sometime by Tuesday we found that point on the passage when sea becomes a dreamscape to roll with indefinitely.

Sailing in company were our Australian friends on Utopia II, a boat we first met in Malaysia more than four years ago. Our boats have an uncanny ability to stay in proximity on multi-day passages, a highly unusual situation (normally, one boat horizons another within hours of departure). This proximity proved invaluable the morning after our first night at sea when Utopia lost steerage.

Sailing back to aid Utopia

Sailing back to aid Utopia

They were about three miles from our position, so we headed back to see if it was possible to assist. First speculation was that a net had pinned the rudder, but closer investigation (after Andrew swam to check, tethered to the boat, in 2 meter seas) told otherwise. Real cause: a through bolt securing the rudder post to the quadrant had sheared off. There was no spare for the 12mm diameter, 20cm long bit of steel.

sailboat under bare poles

Utopia drifts under bare poles

Adrift in the Caribbean: Andrew is swimming just behind Utopia II

Adrift in the Caribbean: Andrew is swimming just behind Utopia II

_DSC2317Jamie and Andrew set to rummaging through our caches of various spares on board. We had clevis pins in the right diameter, but they were too short. A steel rod, salvaged from a wreck on Chagos, wasn’t wide enough: only 10mm in diameter. This still proved to be the best alternative to drifting through the Caribbean. Jamie cut it to length with a hacksaw and Andrew swam over to retrieve it, bundled in a net bag with a handle for easier carrying. Meanwhile, they wallowed in the swells while we stayed close by.

Rigging the repair while crammed in a lazarette in a rolly boat was a job, but three hours losing steerage both boats were underway again. It’s a sober reminder for the importance of self sufficiency and friends in contact. There is no Sea Tow to call out here!

Happily the passage was otherwise uneventful. We averaged over 7 knots for the passage, including those three hours of negative VMG while solving Utopia II’s quadrant woes.

Steady trades averaging around 18 knots picked up the last day, with a current push putting our average over 9 knots.

Despite seas growing 2 to 3 meters, the ride was comfortable. Dead downwind can be a rolly point of sail but with the breeze 15 to 20 degrees off, the motion was ameliorated. The angle pushes the limits of wing/wing, but the jib (and not the main) was the side at risk of backing; Jamie adjusted twist to make backing was unlikely, and push us swiftly west. Conditions for good boat speed allowed the autopilot to steer instead of letting Totem get pushed around by seas. Swaths of sargasso weed floated by as our pair of boats flew towards Bonaire.

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Progress the last day beyond our expectations required slowing down to avoid arriving in the dark. If the mountains of salt from the works at the south end of Bonaire didn’t announce our arrival in this new island, the welcoming flocks of flamingos did– winging right in front of Totem, their long necks making an impossible profile.

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We couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome to Bonaire when arrival included having two moorings handed to us by the crew of Rhapsody. Boats here don’t anchor, they’re required to use moorings or take a marina slip; it’s a move to protect the coral, which is truly spectacular. Bonaire’s reputation as a dive destination is something we can’t wait to explore.

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We’re committed to spending part of every day here underwater. This will not be difficult! A garden of corals and fish beckon freediving off the back of Totem.

Boat kids from Utopia II and Totem

Boat kids from Utopia II and Totem

An array of corals and a zillion little fish

An array of corals and a zillion little fish

Blue lines show our track through the Caribbean, from arrival to Barbados last year; the orange dotted line is the anticipated path west. Curacao, Colombia, then along the San Blas coastline in Panama in January… aiming for a canal transit in early 2018.

Caribbean track

And meanwhile, more memories to make.

Totem family crew silliness

Totem family crew silliness

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

A cruiser’s Thanksgiving: twists on tradition

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

Preparations for a celebration!

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

getting crafty

Gathering with family

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

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

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

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

Rafting up with Utopia II

Rafting up with Utopia II

Sharing a feast

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

kids at the table

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

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

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

Max and Mairen make pie

 

Football! The Macy’s Parade!

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

football sorta

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

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Giving Thanks

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

house blessings

Holiday shopping

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

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

Totem cockpit on Thanksgiving

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

 

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?

Awesome Ted: the best of cruiser culture

Ted and Claudia in the tender Hades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of the tribe

boat show Setup Carolyn and Lin

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

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

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

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

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

Smiles and hugs booth

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

Lin, Nica, me and Carolyn

Lin, Nica, me and Carolyn

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

Craig and Behan

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

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

Laurie and Alex Flora

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

tshirt page

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

Connecting with the show’s importance

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

John Mahowald - SV Last Chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching up with friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behan- Brittany- Gretchen- Tasha annapolis 2017

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

boat show plunger - with inset- jen brett

Homeward bound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two oceans of friendship, and counting

Two oceans of friendship, and counting

zach liz stineSailing Women rock- Galway pub

"As seen" at the boat show

“As seen” at the boat show

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).

swimming with dolphins

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.

cracked conch

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.)

market produce

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

Beautiful everyday Bahamas

sailboat in clear blue water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Archetypical Bahamas, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

Anchor lights come up as dinghies head home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Speeding their way to hang out with other teens on Allegro

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

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Teen conversation circle on the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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