Totem’s Coppercoat application

Coppercoating Totem’s hull was a thrilling prospect, but pressure to do the application correctly gave me more anxiety any boat project in memory. The product features are substantial: a strong environmental case (nothing toxic ends up in the water, as with conventional antifouling paints), and solid financial value (the epoxy bottom should last for many years, a significant savings). But long term success relies on nailing the application. We did NOT want to screw this up.

Totem started from bare fiberglass bottom (no gelcoat) because a prior owner peeled it, presumably to resolve a blister problem. A clean gelcoat surface is best, ahh… if only! Our process to prep the hull, detailed here, took 18 steps. It also took a lot of ibuprofen! Honestly? This was the hardest part of the entire transition, because Coppercoat cannot be applied over existing bottom paint (every last bit of old antifouling must be removed) and the surface must be smooth. To understand why a smooth bottom is important, you must first understand a little more about Coppercoat.

The British Navy first used copper sheathing in the 18th century to mitigate marine growth. It was a miracle. Skipping ahead from wooden warships to fiberglass recreational boats, copper is still an effective method of deterring marine growth. That sheet form nailed to the bottom is a little problematic, though, so clever people worked out you can mix it into paints instead. Unfortunately, still problematic – the paint sheds, by design, which adds all kinds of nastiness into the water while losing effectiveness. Enter Coppercoat: pure, fine copper powder suspended in water-based epoxy.

Once applied and cured, the final step is to sand the surface to expose copper from within the epoxy. When done applying, sand the surface to expose copper from within epoxy. If the surface wasn’t smooth before Coppercoat, the final sanding will yield inconsistent copper exposure. Totem’s bare fiberglass bottom took much more work than a Coppercoat-over-gelcoat application.

Starting the second coat: not pretty yet. Not at all.

Although applying Coppercoat isn’t complicated, each step needs attention. Getting the application right is key to product success, and we felt that mixed reviews we read online stemmed from improper applications. Coppercoat provides a lot of information to help you get it right, from the UK company’s directions to Coppercoat USA‘s retailer’s six-page list of “do’s and don’ts” with additional tips and tricks. Phone support from the Coppercoat team in the UK helped us to get it right and mellowed my nerves.

Coppercoat epoxy kits consist of three parts: a container of resin, another of catalyst, and a bag of fine copper powder. Coppercoat UK directed us to also add isopropyl alcohol (must be 90% or greater) to add, thinning the mixture.

  1. Mix resin and hardener parts thoroughly
  2. Add isopropyl alcohol (four or five capfuls for the first two coats, five or six in later coats)
  3. Add the copper powder and stir until evenly blended

The mixing was easy: one kit at a time. It took three kits for coats one and two, four kits for coats three and four.

Application is a multi-person job for all but the smallest boats. On Totem, it required three: one person to mix and two people to roll it on. The mixer must monitor while rollers are busy applying, to ensure copper is not settling to the bottom of the container. With Mairen and Siobhan helping, we had four people; that gave one person a chance to rotate out for a spell, or freed someone to get drinks or sandwiches.  We did the work in early December at Cabrales Boatyard in Puerto Peñasco, where Totem rested for months to dry out wet fiberglass.

Application morning

We’ve never done this, never seen it done, and really didn’t want to screw up. Cabrales Boatyard’s manager, Salvador, has been there / done that with Coppercoat. He provided great support, helping us get rolling (sorry…) on application day. In reality it’s quite simple, but his presence and advice took the pressure off us Coppercoat newbies.

Humidity is highest at sunrise, so even in arid Puerto Peñasco (hello, Sonora desert) we waited for the sun to lower overnight dampness, warm our bones and warm the boat. A perfect time to clean the hull in final prep, right? We initially planned to do a wipe-down with isopropyl alcohol. Jamie had just wet the first rag and was wiping it at the bow when I had a chat with the Coppercoat folks in the UK who said – stop! They directed us to just do the dry wipe instead, and said that ideally, we’d have washed the boat with plain water and allowed it time to dry. We were out of time for that, but a dry wipe was sufficient.

Salvador Cabrales helped us mix to ensure that we were doing it right.

Rolling proceeded steadily. Each subsequent coat was applied over the last before it dries, “hot coating” to provide a chemical bond. At that point, the surface is tacky: that is, it’s still sticky, but no material comes off when touched. If any material comes off, it’s still too wet! With two people rolling full time, we completed one coat on the hull at just the right time to start a second coat. That’s great, although a break might have been nice…

The product mixer’s role – Mairen owned this! – included topping up the trays used by those rolling it on, and watching their timing in working through the product. If we had to wait for the next kit to kick, we risked falling behind and having product on the hull dry too much for hot coating.

Sisters working together: touching up around exterior fixtures

We’re lucky it wasn’t hotter weather in Puerto Peñasco, as that could have caused the epoxy to kick faster and made our task more complicated if we couldn’t keep up. If a coat dries, you default to physical instead of chemical bonding on the next coat: the first must cure, then get roughed up, then the application process can resume.

Initial coats go in more thinly; later coats were thicker, as the tacky layers beneath softened the application layer and grabbed more paint. These later coats used substantially more paint than the first. It was exciting to see Totem go from looking like a boat with a bad rash to a glittering metallic hull.

Application complete! This was one very long day. It was hardest on Jamie, who rolled for the duration. Although all four coats were applied to Totem in a single day, the project took a week in total. Three days were needed to cure before Totem could be lifted to move keel supports and jackstands to coat previously uncoated areas. Then, those areas need to cure before final sanding and launch.

Jamie supervises while Siobhan applies coppercoat under areas covered by jackstands.

Nearly four months in, we’re really happy with the bottom. It’s performing as hoped, and I wish the water here was clear enough to show it off better.

Next: what it costs, why it’s a good value vs. antifouling paint, DIY vs. professional, and how the bottom looks after several months in a high-growth area.

Cruiser karma: alive and well in La Cruz

Nine years ago this month, Totem rocked at anchor in this exact curve of coastline on the north side of Banderas Bay where we find ourselves today. We basked in the same sunrise over the sierras to the east, were enchanted by the same distant fireworks from Puerto Vallarta resorts in the evening, and maybe even gasped at the same glistening humpback whales breech and splash into colossal spires of whitewater. (There’s Siobhan in the midst of provisioning chaos in our main cabin – age 5.)

Our little crew had been cruising a year and a half: those months grew our confidence in cruising fundamentals, but also reinforced how much we didn’t know. Departure for the 3,000 mile passage to French Polynesia loomed ever closer. Perched on the edge of the cliff, staring out at the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the first big leap is intimidating.

That cliff-edge marks multiple inflection points on the way to realizing cruising dreams. It keeps some boats languishing at the dock, waiting indefinitely on unnecessary improvements as stand-ins for the psychological barrier to embracing “ready enough.” It stops others short from the level of cruising they hoped to achieve, as the numbers of kitted-out boats who never go far, parked in places like La Paz or Langkawi attest.

Sunrise, Banderas Bay, just before we heard whalesong through the hull

In overcoming those hurdles, support from fellow cruisers has been among our most important factors: the presentations we saw before we left, the mentors who nudged us forward. It’s an incredible privilege to be on the other side of that relationship, and help others leap whichever hurdle they’re currently facing. Much of this has been through our coaching service (it’s SO COOL to see the rising number of ‘graduates’ from the TRU crew out there cruising!), but more recently, it’s been through formal and informal presentations. A LOT OF THEM.

The day after Niall flew back to resume classes at Lewis & Clark college in January, Jamie and I were winging our way to Toronto – and a few days later, on to Seattle – to give seminars at their big annual boat shows. We estimate giving about 25 hours of seminars between them. Bonus: good times connecting with our TRU crew in both cities!

Toronto hotel room view: terrifying for these warm-weather humans!

Returning to La Cruz this month, we’ve put more than a dozen free seminars on the calendar. It’s that déjà vu all over again, in the best way! To be in the same room were “Kavenga” Steve showed us his ideas for routing through the Marquesas and Linda from Jacaranda helped us think through long-passage provisioning… and sharing from our experience. Well, it’s alternately thrilling and something that wells up a deep gratitude inside.

After the seriously hectic last few months, we’ve shelved to sailing back to Barra de Navidad and south to Zihuat in favor of chilling out here. Although “chilling out” means playing catch up and giving a lot of seminars – it’s all good! There’s so much to do here – La Cruz is full of resources for cruisers. It is a sweet base during peak season, whether you’re looking for camaraderie, or some day sailing, or tapping the awesome resources available for cruisers.

Our daughters aren’t little kids any more (I can still see them bombing around the marina on their scooters, aged 5 and 7, blonde terrors on two wheels), the La Cruz Kids Club is a great outlet – they have fun and help wrangle the littlest ones.

Siobhan (l) and Mairen (r) bombing around La Cruz: Feb 2009

Siobhan (l) and Mairen (r) bombing around La Cruz: Feb 2019 edition, the LCKC beach cleanup! thanks Kat for the photo!

On the east side of the harbor is Cruisers Comfort, a shady palapa meeting space next to (and hosted by) PV Sailing: it has a lending library with pretty much any cruising guide/reference you could want, and has been the meeting space for the PPJ (as French Polynesia bound “Pacific Puddle Jumpers” call themselves).

Talking ’bout South Pac planning in the palapa! thanks to Scuba Ninja for the photo.

The VIP lounge at the marina is our main seminar venue: I stopped counting attendees, but it was around 50 joining Mike Danielson (PV Sailing) and Jamie to learn about finding a weather window for jumping to the South Pacific yesterday.

Mike and Jamie talking through passage dynamics for the fleet at Marina Riviera Nayarit in La Cruz yesterday

Movie nights under the stars? Yes please! The marina’s open-air amphitheater has weekly feature films and an ongoing environmental series. You can BYO or buy brews and cheap delicious eats (would you like grilled pineapple on your burger? Bacon? Cheese? The works? That’s about $2.50 and SO GOOD).

And then there’s just the sweetness of this anchorage. OK, it gets a little rolly sometimes, but it’s nothing we can’t manage in stride. And you know what we’re hearing through the hull, in early morning calms? WHALE SONG. Right through the hull. And when you can hear it just sitting on a settee, it’s impossible to resist going for better quality sound: click below, and let yourself be carried into a bit of marine meditation.


 

It all adds up to the reasons La Cruz is a kind of ground zero during peak season for cruising in Mexico. It’s why we based here to prep for the big South Pac bound passage in 2009, and it’s why we’re enjoying it so much now.

In the area? Come to a seminar! Our Events page is up-to-date with seminars planned for Feb & March, plus a peek ahead at what’s in store for Jamie and I at boat shows later this year.

Meanwhile, if you’ve thought about taking the two-day Cruising Women master class with me and Pam Wall: make plans for Annapolis NOW, this year could be your last chance! We are hoping to point Totem to French Polynesia in 2020, and that could make the hike back to Annapolis a squidge too far. Jamie and I are giving a bunch of seminars and will head back in April and October this year. The full schedule for Cruisers U is here; to register for Annapolis, visit AnnapolisBoatShows.com.

Crewing on Totem

For the 800 mile run from Puerto Peñasco to Puerto Vallarta, two coaching clients responded to our spontaneous offer for sharing the sail; Sam shares their experience in this guest post.

David read the email before I did. And he’d already made up his mind not to go when he came upstairs to tell me.

“It’s too close to Christmas and too long to be gone.”

“Where would the kids go?”

“What if I can’t get the time off of work?”

“What if the plane tickets are outrageous?”

And my response to these arguments?

“Of course we’re going.”

Two weeks later we were on our way to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico to crew on Totem for the 800 mile passage south to La Cruz. Normally one doesn’t blast their way past all the wonders of Baja or spend cold nights on the Sea of Cortez in winter, but Totem’s got a fancy new paint job on her newly dry bottom, and she made it back in the water just in time to retrieve Niall from Puerto Vallarta on his winter break.

Schedules are typically frowned upon in cruising—for good reason—but the weather gods acquiesced to these unusual circumstances, and we were able to leave the dock and head south on Friday morning, December 14th.

My husband, David, and I became enamored with the idea of sailing about a year and a half ago. It came out of nowhere, really. We’d never sailed. We don’t know anyone who sails. It just happened, and it’s awesome.

After we’d made up our minds to cruise with our two young kids, we took the plunge and became Jamie and Behan’s coaching clients in May of 2018, shopped for boats all summer, and bought our vessel in November.

Told you it was serious!

Serendipitously, we were actually scheduled to sign all the purchase paperwork for our boat the same day we received the email asking if we could come crew on Totem. Clearly a sailor’s life is the life for us. We’d taken every bit of email and video chat advice the Giffords had given, and now we were on our way to learn from them firsthand.

After a long day of travel by car, plane, and shuttle bus, Jamie and Behan invited us aboard. Climbing down Totem’s companionway was the first time I felt I was descending not just into a boat but into a home, with evidence of their happy memories and hard work everywhere I looked.

So there we were, work, parenting and holiday preparations put on hold to take advantage of our first crewing opportunity. As inexperienced as we are, I’m not sure we were much help, but I have a feeling that was kind of the point.

David and I learned so many things about ourselves, about passage making, weather, sail trim and so much more, that I believe this was a better investment than any class we could have taken.

Just a few of the things I discovered:

  • The magic of butyl tape
  • I get queasy the first 36 hours on passage
  • Good food helps
  • So does Dramamine
  • Lee cloths are a delightfully cozy cocoon
  • A Barber Hauler is superior to a jib sheet at every point of sail except close hauled
  • Baja is 100% worth coming back for
  • Just not in winter
  • Old gray pelicans look like wise wizards

But this wouldn’t be a full review of my experience if I didn’t mention the day that made me want to reevaluate this lifestyle. It was a nasty 24 hours of steep-ish, closely patterned waves when we left the southern tip of Baja and headed east to Mexico’s mainland. Totem was treading a fine line between keeping her sails full and keeping the waves astern of the beam. It required near constant steering and eyes on the water.

I found myself in a dark mood after that, questioning if I was making the right decision to one day do this with my kids…and without the Giffords by my side. If this is what cruising is like, maybe it’s a little too much adventure for me, I thought.

I knew I was too exhausted and frayed to think reasonably about it, so I told myself to wait it out. Don’t make any decisions about my future until I’ve had some rest and a chance to see the big picture.

I’m glad I listened to that voice instead of the anxious, overly tired one.

The truth is, passage making is only about 5% to 10% of the cruising life, and cold, winter passages with a schedule to adhere to are virtually unheard of. After 10+ years of cruising, the Giffords only had 3 or 4 stories to share with us about less-than-ideal conditions…all of them manageable and none of them even close to resembling a storm at sea.

This is the biggest decision we’ve ever made. It’ll change our entire lives and give our kids a very different childhood from the one they might have on land. So I don’t take it lightly. And neither do Jamie and Behan. Every decision is carefully calculated, and they’ve planned for all contingencies.

I already suspected we’d chosen our cruising coaches well, but after seeing them in action, practicing what they preach, I know with certainty my family will be successful in our cruising life if we continue to heed their words.

I’m grateful for all of it. The night we anchored in Honeymoon Cove will be fodder for my future cruising dreams, and that last day in Banderas Bay before our flight home gave me the rest—and perspective—I needed. But I’m especially appreciative of that long 24 hours of grumpy seas and practically no sleep. It was hard, but we did it. And we know we can do it again.

I can’t tell you how much comfort it brought me to do my first passage under the full guidance of the Giffords. I wish everyone on the path to family cruising could have this same opportunity.

Sam, David, and their kids are counting down to cruising! Bookmark their pending blog, Muse and the everyday epic, to follow along. Totem and crew are now in Barra de Navidad, revisiting favorite haunts with Niall while’s aboard for winter break. Find out our schedule for boat shows in Toronto, Seattle, and Puerto Vallarta area seminars on our Events page.  

Then and now: sailing Baja nine years later

Sailboats in San Juanico Baja

What’s your favorite place? We’ve heard this question a lot lately. Jamie’s current answer to the “best place” question is that he has 100 top ten favorites. His point (aside from the impossibility of picking just one) is that there’s context needed. Some places are favorites for the delicious food. Others are unforgettable for their Looking back red rocks Bajaunderwater life. Still others for the cultural experiences and learning opportunities they offered. There are so many things to love about a place! The point is made as a family when we each rattle off a few that are top of mind, and quickly finding a dozen “favorites.” And yet what names seems to crop up among multiple family members during that flood? Mexico, and especially, our summer of sailing inside Baja.

Did you ever revisit a beloved haunt from your past, only to find it tarnished compared to the shiny perfection of your memory? That’s what I worried about as we returned to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Our family spent many months there in 2009. Then, as now, we pointed north to mitigate risk during hurricane season.

Returning after so many years and so many countries, would we determine our sophomoric highs to have been idealized in hindsight? Would the drama perceived by our new-to-cruising eyes now seem mundane? Or would familiarity offer comfort?

Northbound from Panama this spring, an old familiarity gradually returned to stars overhead: the Southern Cross still visible, but Orion holding more accustomed placement as our latitude climbed.

Tide pool exploring near San Evaristo, 2009; Totem in the background

We sailed along Baja’s rugged and unforgiving landscape for a month recently, finding a mix of familiar comforts and new discoveries before hauling Totem for our summer away. The kids have mixed memories of our past miles here; Siobhan was only five years old, and her recollections are fuzzy. For Jamie and I, many of our memories center around exploring a new landscape with our children, learning alongside them. Returning with young adults, the everyday dynamic shifted significantly. Our every day life had centered on caring for littles; now it included partners in our adventure as hands-on crew.

Niall at the helm: anchoring in Puerto Don Juan, 2018

The landscape rang familiar for all, even Siobhan. Pictures from nine years ago could as easily have been taken last month. The wildlife, from dolphins to whales to spectacularly diving pelicans: the same.

Anvil with wings looking graceful before splashdown: pelicans at Isla San Francisco

Everyone remembered “the frosting rock” in Los Gatos. Everyone wanted to climb the buttery-smooth looking sandstone cliffs now just as much as they did in 2009.

Totem’s junior crew scrambles up the face in 2009


This time, it didn’t feel quite as daunting to explore with our crew’s longer legs.

Climbing up the frosting rock, Los Gatos, 2018

A skip north in Santa Rosalia the bacon-wrapped were just as delicious, but maybe a little easier to get a mouth around for some.

Niall in 2009 and 2018, Santa Rosalia

Back in 2009, the needs and limitations of young children kept our activy range in a tighter radius: an afternoon on a beach, a walk into town. Our teens make it easier to roam further afield. “How about we try to climb that volcano?” “OK!”

Digging on a beachy afternoon near La Paz, 2009

Hiking Isla Coronados, 2018

A return trip never seems as long as the outbound journey to a new destination. So it feels on our return to the Sea of Cortez: the milestones of points and islands and fishing villages may have been buried in distant memory, but flew by with familiarity this time around. It took the edge off our need to press north, to haul and make our way north for a shorebound summer.

This stretch was eased by familiar faces. In La Paz we caught up with the Boren family from Third Day, a boat we’d shared many anchorages with way back when. Rich now runs CruiseRO watermakers from Cruisers Supply, a shop in one of La Paz’s nicer marinas with the bits and services cruisers want. Rich knows La Paz well and introduced us to gastronomic delights at the spectrum extremes: from street tacos carved off  the al pastor spit, curbside, to serrano ham carved by the ounce in a foodie hideaway.

Amy and Jason (Third Day) help Mairen bury Niall on the beach – La Paz, 2009

Up the coast a ways, former cruiser Jesse (an unforgettable part of our past Baja experience) drove us well inland to experience the whispering history of Misión San Francisco Javier, a 17th century mission halfway across the peninsula and unreachable for us otherwise… breaking on the return trip to try flying drones through the dramatic canyons of the mountains.

Any misgivings about how we’d like Mexico on coming back have faded, but it was these and other members of our cruising family made that return feel more like homecoming. Now there are places we can’t wait to revisit, friends new and old to meet up with, and a whole lot of street taco exploring to do when we head back to Totem this fall. And then, from that base of familiarity, to do what we love most: reach out and explore to find what’s new to learn from, while seeking ways to contribute. Ultimately, “favorite” places don’t matter nearly as much as making the most of the place you find yourself: we’re just that much luckier that Baja has so much to offer.

Two girls. Two burros. 2009.

Circumnavigation, check! What’s next?

At anchor before playa de Balandra, Mexico

Motoring north from La Paz, parched mountains reach up on Totem’s starboard side along a gently winding channel. On the far side of a wide blue bay bask the low desert hills of southern Baja. Tonight we’ll anchor in a quiet bay where the water turns to clear turquoise near shore, and we scan the hillsides with binoculars to glimpse coyotes at sunset.

Leaving this sweet town in the lower reaches of the Sea of Cortez is an inflection point: it starts our last weeks with Niall aboard. In a life that is rich with so many “firsts,” suddenly we’re chalking up the opposite. The last overnight passage as a nuclear family is probably just in our wake. We’re doing our last stretch of route planning with the whole family for crew. I’ll be looking at every hike, every swim, every bonfire on the beach and thinking – this is the last time we’ll do this, before he leaves.

From here we sail to Gulf of California’s far north and haul Totem in Puerto Penasco. Totem will sit on the hard in the Sonora desert for at least three months, and we’ll spend the summer back in the Seattle area – land based for a change, on Bainbridge Island. In October Jamie and I return to the Annapolis boat show for a round of seminars and meetups, then back to Totem with Mairen and Siobhan.

Niall has accepted Lewis & Clark, where classes begin in August. We are thrilled (that explorers are the college’s namesake is only one hint to the excellent fit of this institution for our adventurous son!) and terrified (have you seen tuition rates?). His transition marks an exciting chapter on many fronts. This mama bear may get choked up, but Jamie and I know he’s ready. While I’m sure they’ll miss him, but Mairen and Siobhan have long since anticipated how they’ll reallocate his cabin space to meet their needs.

The family completes a circumnavigation. The boat goes on the hard. The crew goes return to their point of departure. A boat kid goes off to college. I guess that blew some vivid smoke signals: more than I realized since I was surprised to keep hearing: What’s next? The unspoken assumption, almost every time: you’re finished cruising now that the circumnav loop is closed, so, now what?

Sea lions near La Paz

Basking sea lions near La Paz, Mexico

Now what is, in short, continued cruising. Circumnavigation was not a bucket list notch we sought to whittle before calling an end to life afloat. That’s not why we’re out here, so no, we never planned to be finished because we crossed that outbound track. It irks me that these circumnavigating is bundled up with being done, when (for our family anyway) they have exactly nothing to do with each other beyond wanting to complete it as a family (before Niall headed to college) once we realized it was in reach.

Circumnavigating is an achievement we are humbled and proud to have achieved, but it’s what happened along the way to achieving our greater objective: deliberately choosing a different way to raise our family. Growing children in tune with nature, with perspective on the real difference between want and need, with first hand exposure to the natural and societal challenges faced on our planet. Knowledge and experiences we hope will inspire them to be part of solutions, instead of jut another developed-world consumer automaton. This hasn’t changed, and so neither has our intention to continue cruising.

Siobhan and Mairen clowning around - Bahia de los Muertos

Siobhan and Mairen clowning around – Bahia de los Muertos

So what’s REALLY next? Most likely, a couple of years along the coast of Mexico. After 10 years and more than 50,000 miles, Totem needs work– projects that will take time, and funds. The funds trickle slowly so we’ll need a while. I’d love to head back to the South Pacific next spring, but 2020 is the realistic window that we’ll sail again towards Polynesia.

Our lifestyle choice continues to rest on a kind of three-legged stool. The first is that every family member has a say: we must all want to do this. And then, we must be healthy enough. And finally, most practically, we must financially string it together. One of those may change at any time (particularly as the needs of our teens evolve!), but it hasn’t happened yet.

Puget Sound bound

Meanwhile, we’re all excited at the prospect of a summer in Puget Sound. This will be long overdue time with friends and family, people we love dearly and in many cases haven’t seen in a very long time… in most cases since we left, which will be 10 years on August 21. It will be a welcome opportunity to meet up with denizens of Salish Sea we’ve met more virtually over the years, or through this blog and our coaching services, and share time in person.

Let’s meet up!

For folks back in the Pacific Northwest, a few speaking engagements are lining up. These are open to anyone (and more meetups are pending). We’d love to meet readers, so please come and say hello!

  • July 12, 7:00 pm: Seattle Yacht Club. Free, cash bar, pre-registration required; 206-325-1000
  • Sept 11, 6:30 pm: Bluewater Cruising Association, Vancouver, BC.  Details TBD.
  • Sept 14, 7:00 pm: Corinthian Yacht Club, Seattle. Details TBD.

Can we help you?

Our coaching service works from anywhere through video chat sessions. Being back in Puget Sound for the summer gives us even more reach to help gonna-go cruisers in person. Whether planning for the big cruise or a long summer sailing holiday, Jamie and I are available by appointment to help on a variety of fronts. Bring Jamie’s expertise on board for sail handling or sail/rig inspection. 1:1 seminars on navigation, piloting, route planning, and more. Talk to us about systems or gear choices/setup. We’ll go out with you and practice anchoring skills. Affordable rates, plus travel costs – get in touch, and we’ll look forward to meeting you.

Until next time

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence at all that the day we crossed our outbound track, I finished At Home in the World, Tsh Oxenreider’s memoir of her family’s nine month backpack/plane world adventures. Seeking a connection with our history and our plans, we found many with these land bound travelers. Her book also surfaced a quote from Pat Conroy that resonated perfectly and brought peace in embracing an uncertain future. And the point to me, is, it doesn’t matter. We are on the continuum of our life’s journey, forever influenced by experiences, where ever they take us.

Pat Conroy, quoted in the best book I’ve read in a while: At Home in the World.

Regardless of our place on the continuum: the sea has changed us. And having embarked on this journey, we view everyday life through a new lens no matter where the future path extends.

Ruminating further on circumnavigating—what it means to us, how the outside perception strikes us—is more articulately shared in our 48 North article in June. Grab the new issue from stands in the Pacific Northwest next week, or download from June 1 on 48north.com.

Northbound to Mexico: lessons from the country-per-day plan

birds on the bow at sunset

The Pacific side of Panama felt palpably different even before the channel markers switched near the continental divide, green buoys replacing red on Totem’s starboard side. It was partly an earthy smell of the hot wind blowing through the Gaillard cut. A changed quality in the light, maybe, on the far side of sawtooth mountains catching tradewind-blown clouds from the Caribbean. The temperature cooled along with the water, and large swells slowly lifting Totem on the exit from Mirabella confirmed her homecoming to the Pacific.

Jamie and I booked flights from Puerto Vallarta to the Annapolis boat show later in April. PV is about 2,000 nautical miles from the canal, so there’s pressure to make tracks to the north…but only after some fun with the family of Shawnigan and a stockup at the Mercado publico in Panama City. It’s north… but it’s actually very much a westbound path as well, as the picture of our sunset bow view attests!

Edging away from the crepuscular splendor fostered by canal zone smog, a first hop to forgotten islands off the coast helps to optimally time rounding Punta Mala at slack tide (the Spanish being very literal with names, if this was designated ‘bad’ that’s worth respect!). From there ahead to Costa Rica, where weather-window waiting began.

Passage planning begins in earnest at Playa Hermosa, towards the western end of Costa Rica. There are two weather hurdles: Papagayo winds that form over Nicaragua, and “Tehuantepeckers” that blow from the Caribbean over the isthmus to the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Rubbery plans stretched hesitantly out. It drives home three principles for safe and comfortable cruising. First, that having a schedule is generally not good. Second, that you should never be tempted toward preferential forecast interpretation. Last, that it’s always OK to change plans at the last minute if the weather tea leaves aren’t lined up in your favor. OH, there’s a fourth: it’s always worth looking beyond your immediate forecast. Had we considered only what the Papagayos were doing, we may have missed that by holding off a couple of days we’d time well for the Tehuantepec.

Traffic on the Pacific side of the canal at our first-light departure

Expected windows evaporated, plans postponed at the last minute; it’s best for the boat and the crew. And then, finally, our patience is rewarded. Not only is there a window to cross the Papagayo zone, but it appears by the time we reach the Gulf of Tehuantepec there will be a weather window to cross here as well. It feels like finding a four-leaf clover in a field and comes with the trivia fun fact that we’ll spend each day off the coast of a different country during the five days to Mexico.

OpenCPN screenshot of our route from Panama to Mexico

OpenCPN screenshot of our route from Panama to Mexico

Departure day – Costa Rica – March 29

Cabo Santa Elena has a reputation like Punta Mala for washing machine seas. We play slack tide again and anchor in the lee to eat lunch until the timing is right. Did it make a difference in the sea state? We aren’t sure. But we did have very comfortable conditions, relatively flat water and a breeze in the mid-teens. Ironically it had been much windier at our lunch hook in the lee of the point, where the wind was probably funneling and spilling over the ridge line.

Crossing into the Gulf of Santa Elena, the seas built to only about 1.5 meters at the greatest point of fetch, when the coastline fell off to a little over eight miles from our rhumb line course. The islands here are beautiful, and all along this coast are mental marks of bays we hope to revisit at leisure.

Scanning the Murcialagos islands

Jamie scans the Murcialagos islands through the binoculars: this is a place to revisit

Along the way, marine life puts on a show. Twice there are pods of whales; nothing is close enough to identify. Part of me is wistful, but part is grateful. It’s actually terrifying to be too close to whales in the water! Dolphins come to play several times, the magic of their directional shift to join our course always heartwarming. A meter-wide ray jumps behind Totem, and three turtles swim by later in the afternoon.

Passage eating: skillet bannock for breakfast, a lunch of couscous salad with beets, garbanzos, chicken, and eggplant parm for dinner… prepared at anchor to enjoy without effort.

Day 2 – Nicaragua – March 30

We wake up in Nicaragua, Totem’s 47th country/territory and what turned out to be our 1,500th anchorage while cruising! Papagayos are worse at night; this curve of bay in the surf town of Pie del Gigantes was a good place to stop. Winds were in the mid-30s, nothing like the force they can pack but still enough to whip up some nasty seas. Picking a mellow bay to get another night of sleep while the wind blew was definitely the right course for us. Although close enough to shore to watch families on their Semana Santa holiday romp in the surf, we remain aboard and don’t try checking in. Technically we should… our usual rulesy selves are passing on the hassle, still smarting from the 10 hours to check in and out (concurrently) in Costa Rica.

Kids swim from the bow of the boat

The kids want to chalk up a swim in every country: Niall and Siobhan get ready for a dip in Nicaragua

Diurnal winds bring better conditions than expected, and with nice morning breeze Totem makes miles under sail. It fades at midday, we fire up the engine and then 15 minutes later breeze is up in the opposite direction… without a change in course we just pull the jib out on the other side and BAM making 7-8 knots again! Flat water in the bargain. Reminds me of being back in Madagascar, except the difference at night in our northern hemisphere carpet of stars.

Passage eating: a late breakfast of ham/cheese/egg sandwiches, snacking our way through lunch pangs, a hearty bean ragout with sautéed cabbage at sunset in the cockpit.

Day 3 – El Salvador – March 31

Some hitchhikers are especially fun, and today was Bird Day on board. The booby on the spreader was cute until it flung fishy poop on our strataglass. But the pair of terns that snuggled up on the bow in the evening, cooing and grooming and occasionally nipping each other, were nothing short of adorable.

Painfully cute pair of nuzzling terns on Totem's bow

Painfully cute pair of nuzzling terns on Totem’s bow

We have a full moon on this passage, and it’s a particularly stunning strawberry color as it rises from behind low-lying clouds this evening. As a general rule, full moon is a welcome feature as it makes it easier for the on-watch to see the sea state at night. It’s also something we have had comically bad timing with in the past! But the seas are board flat, our nights will mostly be motoring as the wind dies after sunset, and I find myself missing the carpet of stars as most are eclipsed by the bright moon. Yet during my watch in the wee hours of the morning, I can see the southern cross on our port side and the north star to starboard. The unusual occurrence of these pole harbingers never fails to feel special. As if to agree, I hear the huff of dolphins aspirating somewhere just out of my sight.

Passage eating: make-your-own-oatmeal-when-you-rise, team lunch of arepas with sweet potato/black bean hash, and a rich, creamy beef stroganoff in the cockpit for dinner.

Day 4 – Guatemala – April 1

Apparently, it’s Easter. When we started cruising this would have been preceded by a week of eggy crafts and making natural dyes to tint blown-out eggshells; on Easter morning we’d have hidden chocolates in the cabin and hoped they’d all be found before melting in the subtropical heat. This year is lower key, we’d almost have missed the holiday if not for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) that takes over in Central America. The thump of music from beach revelers reaches us as far as 12 miles offshore.

Mairen and a plate full of hot cross buns

Mairen and a plate full of hot cross buns

Our subdued nod to the holiday is a big pan of hot cross buns, complete with shortcrust pastry decoration. Checking social media through our Iridium GO, I learn that Easter is becoming like another Christmas with Santa suits swapped for bunny outfits. This addition to the consumer driven holiday panoply is startling. I’m glad it’s absent from our reality, and reflect on how our relationship with Stuff has been changed by the way we live.

Passage eating: hot cross buns, eggs optional; yogurt and fruit; a Provençal stew (if only we had rabbit).

Day 5- Mexico – April 2

At dawn we’re off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico. If the Pacific felt like home, arriving in Mexico is yet another homecoming: it’s a few skips north up this coast where we will cross Totem’s outbound track to complete circumnavigating. In a twist of fate our landfall is within 24 hours of the precise eight year mark that we pointed Totem away from Mexico to begin our passage for the South Pacific.

Cownose ray winglets disturb Marina Chiapas water at dusk

Cownose stingray winglets disturb Marina Chiapas water at dusk

Puerto Chiapas is the jumping point for the Tehuantepec, and as the forecast has held the window to cross. We have just enough fuel to make it, and it’s tempting, but could have us arriving on fumes; we’d rather have a buffer. The window won’t close if we stop overnight here to check into the country and top up diesel, so by 8am we are tied to the dock at Marina Chiapas. The marina staff are smiling and friendly; the ebullient welcome from the charismatic manager Memo buoys us further.

Arrival celebration: bacon and eggs for breakfast, because bacon; lunch on the run during clearance; chicken on the braai; tequila. Viva Mexico! ).

Rest, then northbound again

Passages have a rhythm. There’s a stride that sets in on the third morning; no longer sleep deprived, accustomed to the body clock shift into multiple sleep cycles. Stopping in Chiapas was the right thing to do, but it resets the rhythm. That the passage across the Tehuantepec is only one night is awkward again, but a mixed-up body clock is not even a blip in the decision to go. The window is open, and what we’re paying closest attention to is… well, look at our PredictWind screenshot below. What do you think?

PredictWind view of Tehuantepec

Meanwhile, we heard from friends on the far side of the Gulf – a family we last saw in Mexico just prior to departing for the South Pacific, and they’re waiting with bubbles. Time to go!

Boobies wrangle for spreader ownership

MY SPREADER.