Bonaire’s underwater wonderland

Mairen freediving

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

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

Bonaire location

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

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

Bonaire dive site Map

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

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

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

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

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This aft deck taken over by gear

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

Totem floats over the reef

Totem floats over the reef

anchorage- corals

 

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

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Swimming off the back of Utopia II

Just hanging out

Just hanging out

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

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

My buddy the octopus, blending into his/her den

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

well-disguised flounder skimming the bottom

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

Another well-disguised critter… can you see it?

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

Sarah swims by a mooring block encrusted with Christmas tree worms

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

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

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

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

forest of soft corals fans Black Durgon in the deep blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday gifts that cruisers want

Paddling in Guadeloupe

As avowed minimalists, this feels slightly awkward putting a post of holiday gifts together. But the reality is that there are useful needs to meet in a life afloat. This peek into what works hopefully aids those anticipating a similar path: a personal look what’s worked for us, and what’s on our wish list, as idea fodder for gifts to the the sailors in your life. It’s organized into four angles:

  1. Best additions to Totem this year
  2. Wish list: functional gifts
  3. Wish list: what the crew really wants!
  4. Especially for kidsThe Great Kayak Debacle of 2016. Weighing pros/cons, we picked the durability of a fixed board over a space-saving inflatable. A shorter (10’) Jimmy Styx model (year-end closeout!) is right-sized for our humans and has provided hours of fun and fitness. Siobhan paddles in front of Totem, photo at top.
  5. Underwater dome lens – talk about bang for the buck. Only $50 to get some of my favoritest pictures ever. Just fit the GoPro inside and swim! It’s so flippin’ cool to have split images with above/below water…like this one showing Totem  floating in crystal Bahamian water while a nurse shark dozes on the sand below.
  6. Pic made possible with a dome

    Pic made possible with a dome port lens over GoPro. Me on deck, Jamie in the water; Staniel Cay, Bahamas.

    • Winches – Jamie likes to fondle our new Andersen stainless steel winches. No, seriously. Aside from the fact they are incredibly sexy mirror-finish stainless, the engineering of these makes them a better mousetrap, starting with guts that require less maintenance. Ribs on the drum don’t need as many wraps for sufficient friction, and they’re kinder to lines than conventional drum texturing. Jamie is all the warm fuzzies from that ribbed drum. I kinda want to get a lascivious picture of him with one.
    • Mantus scuba– we used to wish for dive gear on Totem, but it never made sense; a mix of upfront cost, equipment x 5 crew, limited space, and just not being die-hard divers. But we do really like getting underwater…a lot! Adding a pair of Mantus tanks has been perfect. Good fun for more marine exploring beyond our freediving skills, plus peace of mind as added safety equipment (invaluable if an anchor fouled below freediving depth / hang time capability).
    Kids dive with Mantus scuba

    Kids dive with Mantus scuba. There’s that dome port lens again too!

    • ACR ResQLink+. This personal locater beacon (PLB) was added to our safety kit for taking off to the Bahamas and beyond. My worst nightmare is losing on-watch crew overboard; I still worry when Jamie’s on watch and I’m “sleeping” off watch – these help me actually relax, knowing he’s basically attached to an EPIRB.
    • Drone – we picked up a Phantom 3 pro during the post-holiday-sales last year. I know, have been lame about sharing the footage (will provide room & board on Totem for anyone who can train us up!) but – WOW. The images are amazing! I love the bird’s eye view it offers of our life afloat! New Years Resolution: learn editing and share some videos. I’m not kidding about hosting someone who can school us! (Aline are you reading?! 😊 )
    Dakity bay Culebra Puerto Rico anchorage

    Culebra, Puerto Rico

    • Dinghy. When our trusty Avon finally gave up (well, it was 19 years old) in Thailand, the Highfield we replaced it with was… suboptimal. Not big enough, didn’t ride as well. A dinghy is one of the most frequently used bits of gear on board so we felt the gap. The 10.5’ AB (aluminum, double floor, bow locker) we picked up at Tradewind Yachting Services in Nanny Cay in September is AWESOME.
    • TOTEM shirts! New earlier this year, we adore these super-soft, organic cotton shirts and LOVE seeing people wear them. If you order Totem gear (Ts, caps and a hemp market bag too), send us a picture!Show your (neutral, water-based) colors with a yummy soft Totem Tshirt!

      Show your (neutral, water-based) colors with a yummy soft Totem Tshirt!

II. Wish list: practical

The next set… well, they aren’t exactly sexy holiday gifts. But the way our family looks at the world is in more practical term (I just realized how crazy that probably sounds to a lot of readers- yes, chucking convention to live on a boat with no fixed address is very practical. Really!): these are the practical wish-list expenditures. Right now we’re saving all our pennies to transit the Panama Canal but; some of these we expect (chaps, shade) others are less likely.

  • Dinghy chaps. Fabric covers fitted to the hypalon tubes extend their life by preventing chafe and reducing UV exposure. These are labor intensive and custom made, haven’t rationalized this expense just yet.
  • Outboard. Dinghy theme lately? Our outboard has been struggling for over a year, something that dependably gets a full load on a plane would be sweet. This 15hp Yamaha would do us right.
  • Repaint Totem’s hull. It’s so beat up, the guys working in the shipyard in Grenada were laughing at us—all in good fun—and asking if they could give her a makeover! Hey, there’s a dugout canoe associated with almost every ding, those are good memories…OK yeah it would be nice to have a pretty boat again.
  • Cockpit shade. We have an AWESOME, pretty new (2016) bimini frame (thank you to the great guys at TurboXS!)…but it still lacks the whole fabric-shade-that-attaches-to-it part. It will be really nice to get the last mile of this addition completed.
  • Sailrite. We’ve gone back and forth on these durable sewing machines. Cons: machines need to be used to stay workable; they are heavy, and they take up a chunk of storage. But in the Pro column: Jamie could do a lot with one, like dinghy chaps and cockpit shade! He’s a sailmaker, used to be a hands-on in the pit guy and knows his way around a pro machine. Our M.O. to date: Jamie fixes other cruiser’s Sailrites that have stopped working after languishing in a locker by bartering for usage to get a project done.
Making our dodger soft sides in Jacksonville: thanks Patty!

Making our dodger soft sides in Jacksonville: thanks Patty!

  • Countertops. The formica installed in Thailand, unfortunately, is not good. It’s a long story. But the formica is nearly worn through, the trim wasn’t done right, and a bunch of other stuff. For the Someday files. Solid surfacing would be so dreamy!
  • Solid state external drives. The movable parts on hard drives, in computers and external drives, have shorter lifespans with the small constant motions of a boat. SSDs would be less prone to failure. The multiple of expense is unfortunate (and almost rationalized by failed drives!). The only downside: external SSDs are mostly small, so you’d need a bunch to accomodate all the photo and video files a family accumulates. Sample: this Samsung 2TB drive, ~$800.

III. Wish list: just for fun

What’s your heart’s desire? I asked everyone on board to contribute their “wish” gift idea for something they have zero need for, but a dose of desire. This turned out to be difficult: we are pretty good at being satisfied with what we have instead of craving what the boat next door has! But there are some great ways to be indulgent on board. The top five are our personal picks, the rest are from family brainstorming.

  1. Niall: PADI dive certification. (shhh: I think we figured out how to do this affordably enough in Bonaire next month! He doesn’t read the blog – don’t spill the beans anyone!!)
  2. Mairen: horseback riding. (still with the experiences. C’mon Mairen it’s about Stuff! She never got beyond “more art supplies then?”)
  3. Siobhan: a puppy. KIDDING. Except she wasn’t. Her BATNA wish is to have any book she wants for a year. Qualified with “you know I use the library mostly.” People, she reads a LOT. Thank goodness for ebook loans from our hometown library!
  4. Jamie: Code zero with a continuous line furler on a sprit. Because the sailmaker’s boat is a little bit like the cobblerss kids… often wanting. Here’s why Jamie thinks this is a winner sail for cruisers.
  5. Behan: fancypants freediving fins, and lessons to go with them. (As long as we’re daydreaming, I’d learn from supermama and freediving champion Ashley Chapman at Evolve Freediving, with a whole- family lesson!)

More Totem crew wish-list picks that may generate ideas for giftees on your list:

  • Water-friendly drone. We’re having so much fun with the ‘regular’ drone, imagine one that lands on the water, or follows behind the dinghy – saltwater spray be damned?! This very cool looking Splash Drone 3 lands on the water and floats. Whoa. Or the QuadH2O: double whoa.
  • Mini home theater projector. We watched movies outside on the Delos deck once upon a time; I harbor dreams of hosting anchorage movie nights with a film displayed on a sail “screen.” One that’s bright enough, not to big, and doesn’t draw too much power, decent speakers…or 3 out of 4. Like this maybe (and wow, that’s a good price!)?
  • New computer. OK, not family but Jamie. The Toughbook that is our navigation computer doubles as his personal machine, but doesn’t play well with Windows 10. Newer models do. Still a big fan of Toughbooks for their durability on board.
  • Camera equipment. Better underwater shots with an Olympus Tough: the GoPro is awesome for environmental shots, but fails on macro, and those are fun to take underwater. Above sea level, I traded in all my Nikon gear to migrate towards Sony’s mirrorless a7 series, and will always be drooling over lenses.
  • A dozen Luci lights. We have one and it’s fantastic: indulgent wish list version,- how cool would a strand of them be hung tiki-light style around the cockpit?!the masks they got from Divers Direct in Florida this year, and they’re very reasonably priced (holiday sale: $40?!).
  • Beach fun: boogie boards and beach bocce are our favorites.
  • Fishing kit. Get kids their own tackle box, handline, a net to grab stuff that goes overboard; even a Hawaiian sling spear if they can handle it.
  • Field guides. Not kid books, but GOOD field guides. Identification of underwater life was a big hit from the time we started cruising with littles. Region-specific matters, I believe: the Gottshall two-book set is amazing for Pacific Mexico; DeLoach guides rule for the Caribbean: one for Reef Fish, one for Coral, one for, well, everything else (Reef Creatures).
  • Scooters.  Bikes are impractical; kids like wheels and folding scooters fit. Utility varies by cruising grounds (not a lot of roads in some oceanic regions!), but these are great get-around fun.
  • Arts & crafts. I’m not very crafty, so packaged kits like Klutz are perfect for me. Getting good materials will serve you later: these watercolors are richly pigmented and last a long time. Oragami, beading, or whatever! There are lists for this in Voyaging with Kids.
  • Chocolate. Yes this was on their list. Clearly these are my children.
  • Board games, cards. Our current favorite is Dread Pirate (thank you Sallianne and Doug!). Try cooperative games! Family Pastimes games got us started… Pandemic is the classic. This post about games cruisers play lists a number of other favorites on board.
  • Legos. Our lego days are over, but the kids know these are huge for the younger set.
sailboats anchored rafted drone Caribbean

Totem and Utopia, rafted up for Thanksgiving last week: because 1) better with friends and 2) drones rock!

Want more ideas?

Here are the Christmas gift posts from the last few years. They’re all aimed at cruisers, but each with a slightly different take:

  • Gifts that give a little more (2016). Focusing on sourcing gifts that contribute in some way to a greater good than just the Thing.
  • Gifts under $50 for sailors (2015). Keeping the costs contained! OK, there was one item over $50.
  • Gifts for cruisers (2014). Tried & true: fun, functional gifts that cruisers can use.