Pictures from the Passage: Colombia to Panama

Photos of sea state never do it justice. It is a truth and occasional lament, as it’s difficult to convey the feeling of being at sea. This passage (Trials at Sea and Ashore) held some of the most unpleasant seas we’ve experienced: flat-fronted walls of water, tossing Totem around. These pictures won’t capture those seas, but to the challenging passage from Colombia to Panama.

A more pleasant start on departure from Santa Marta; ahead of us, the 51’ Utopia II is dwarfed when passing the massive yacht M5.

Bit of a size difference

A few hours later, a chain link of Totem’s steering cable broke: steering was still possible with the autopilot, but not with the helm. In many situations, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. In these seas, which necessitated more human-controlled steering to avoid rounding up, it was a bigger problem. What followed was about eight hours of “hand steering” the waves by pressing autopilot buttons to adjust course. Here, Jamie works on repairs that night as we lay at anchor near Baranquilla. More about the break, and the fix, in a later post.

Headlamp-powered repairs to the steering cable

The next day was relatively uneventful, but exhaustion prompted a stop in Cartagena to rest. Aussie catamaran Aseka entering behind us, in a narrow channel shared with commercial vessels like that in the background.

Kinda snug in the channel…

Fishermen heading out to sea in the early morning, passing the 18th century San Fernando fort which guards one side of Cartagena’s Boca Chica entrance.

Fishermen commute

For the first time in months, a pod of dolphins joined us to play in the wake.

What species?

Feathered hitchhikers are always fun, although boobies like the one that joined us overnight can leave appallingly smelly poo on deck. This one struggled to sit on the furler and eventually settled on the anchor roll bar (an excellent poop scoop). We decided it was practicing for a band album cover with extended stares off into the middle distance.

Clearing in at Puerto Obaldia, Panama, was… “interesting” as swells rolling in made us pitch at anchor. Thankfully we were able to depart the tenuous spot to find serene waters in Puerto Perme before nightfall, and host our first Guna visitors (and their dugout) the following morning.

Trials of this passage are detailed in the prior post, but internet prevented pictures at the time – enjoy a late update!

Poised for the Bahamas

0 Miami skyline

“I hear you’re putting Totem on the hard.” “Will you go out again?” In fact, we have no plans to park Totem for an extended stay on land (or in the water), and have never considered remaining in the US. But given the dearth of information in this space about what 2017 holds I can understand the speculation. We are on the cusp of departure and thrilled to be heading out for more adventures afloat.

Cascading events prolonged our departure, but the boat’s been humming, and legged out timing has shaped our direction. Routing clarity comes slowly after many shuffles on how we’ll fill the gaps between now (in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) and a year from now  (Pacific Ocean, via Panama Canal). It still has a lot of squiggles and question marks, but the bigger picture should stick.

1- map

For many months, that year-long view was literally nothing more than get out of the US and back to the islands, spend a couple of months in Cuba, and explore Panama’s Guna Yala. (Remember that Plan is a four-letter word for cruisers! Corollary: Thar Be No Schedules)

We’d written the Bahamas off, but they’re now solidly ON, and their late arrival means I’m scrambling for information. Friday I got our Waterway Guide’s Bahamas, Turks & Caicos book. IT’S GORGEOUS. The last years of Western Pacific / Indian Ocean / Southern Atlantic sailing had poor guides, if any, and it put me off. What did exist covered too wide an area to be useful, so I stuck to travel guides instead and started thinking cruising guides weren’t important. You know what? They’re incredibly useful, I’d just been too long without an example of what a good guide offers. So with 2017 Bahamas edition in hand, instead of helping Jamie and the girls scrub the hull that morning, I did this:

2 waterway guide

I did also buy a traveler’s guidebook for the Bahamas. I’m probably going to leave it behind, because the Waterway book is better, and has everything I need: the travel guide insights (cultural orientation,  things to bring, cool places to visit) AND annually updated cruising data (what to bring and where to provision, details for moorings and choice anchorages, the latest marina info– even updates on impacts from last fall’s hurricane, and recommendations for things islanders might need that we can ferry over).

Although schedules are the bane of cruising, I’ve happily added a fixed Must Be There date by signing on to present at the US Boat Show in Annapolis in April. Pam Wall and I will lead a 2-day Cruising Women seminar, and I’m giving a few additional presentations as part of the show’s Cruisers University. I’m very excited about this, especially the Cruising Women program. Jamie seems to have been born with saltwater in his veins; before we went cruising, it was important to me to seek information and skills. Women-only courses provided the shared perspective and camaraderie that best supported my goals.  If you sign up, tell me! I’d love to anticipate meetups.

It feels very good to be poised for Bahamas takeoff in Fort Lauderdale, but first we had to get south from Jacksonville to Miami for my friend Lynne Rey’s birthday. Schedules again? Maybe, but no way would I miss this since we could be there! Along the way, there wasn’t  a lot of wind, but some beautiful sunny days and mellow seas that meant Niall could combine studying with watchkeeping in the cockpit.

3 cockpit studying

Along the way we spent a couple of evenings hanging out with Kirk McGeorge. He’s done a couple of circumnavigations on a sistership, Gallivanter, and now does some crazy cool work building underwater submersibles with an outfit in Fort Pierce (he was a Navy diver, and drove Alvin- THE Alvin- on Titanic, way back when). The last time we saw Kirk was Australia, nearly five years ago! Cruising friendships like his are GOLD – you pick up right where you left off, despite intervening years.

4 kirk dinner

In Miami, Lynne, her husband Tony (we sailed together in college) and their kids hosted us at the Coral Reef Yacht Club. This made fun birthday celebrations, late nights in the cockpit, kids learning and playing together, and a lot of good times very easy.

3 birthday

It also made it much easier for a visit from Kerry (the impressive endurance athlete / sailor / quadriplegic I sailed with last month). She gave our family and the Reys a preview of a powerful documentary she’s a part of that I hope will be ready to share publicly soon. Some tissues required after viewing before we could pose for a pic together, our thumbs in the air for Kerry’s nonprofit, ThumbsUp International. ThumbsUp connects people of all abilities to tackle athletic challenges, in particular by teaming able and disabled athletes.

6 thumbsup international

Please check out the Facebook page for ThumbsUp International and give it a like to show your support! Kerry would really like to nudge it over the 2,000 like hurdle: can we do it?! Follow and share!

More friends visited: we first knew Tiffany and Greg as “the Coast Guard Couple” when we met them in Mexico eight (!) years ago; we last caught up in Australia. They’ve traveled a loop around the world since then, by sea across the Pacific and by land from SE Asia to the UK. Both are Coast Guard Academy graduates, both are hard core professional seafarers, and they had great advice on college and maritime licensing for Niall. Just the folks to help toss the lines when it was time to head to the anchorage, right?

5 coast guard couple

And then, there was maintenance and repair. Lots of it. Because that’s one definition of the cruising life.

7 tiny part - big pain

To give you an inkling of that everyday fun on Totem, and a peek into what’s kept Jamie busy here in Florida:

Outboard: FINALLY FIXED. It’s been sick for five months. Diagnosis by mechanic in Jacksonville: failed CDI unit, but we replaced that and still no spark. Option two: bad coil. Ding ding ding ding! Wires from the coil had both broken…photo above. They were crimped by a strain relief device, but the break was hidden inside of a plastic sleeve. Great 11th hour help from our new friend Conor, who borrowed a flywheel puller from a Miami auto shop to get it done.

8 Conor saves the day


Sundowners on Totem later, time to talk story with Conor (former cruising kid, now physicist) and his dad

Aft cabin: I went to a road trip to Miami with my friend Patty, and Jamie broke the aft cabin. He’s since rebuilt my workspace, relocated the solar and wind charge controllers to a newly-constructed locker, and cleaned up a bunch of wiring spaghetti. Few words for a LOT of work.

Dodger: As a sailmaker, Jamie knows his way around a sewing machine. But canvas work is “fiddly” (his description) and he hoped to outsource Totem’s new dodger sides. But after weeks of no joy or no action from service providers in northern Florida, he took our friends on Shanthi up on the offer to borrow their SailRite and made it himself. Templating with Tyvek from the hardware store, then constructing the final from Sunbrella, Strataglass, and Tenara thread…on the dock, until it rained, with child labor…as you do. It IS fiddly, but he does great work, and saving the expense is a great bonus.

9 dock dodger construction

10 whoops rain

Before he could get to the canvas, the whole hard top was shifted forward: this meant changing the frame (it’s more vertical on the forward face now) and building new supports.

Deck hardware: fully reinstalled the repaired stanchion base that broke on our unpleasant passage from Bermuda to Connecticut.

Engine: Fixed pesky drip from fuel filters after troubleshooting. Replaced barbs with correct size, replaced 3-way valve fitting, and O-rings. Hopefully this saves the $250 racor replacement kit!

Electrical: We use a rugged Panasonic Toughbook for our nav computer. Both plug connections for the nine-year-old 12v charger had failed; solder now leads directly to the board. All good.

Plumbing: Replaced failing cockpit drain hoses (shared with galley sink drain: presumed grease buildup). Fixed flaw in primary water tank that prevents proper venting with a few holes (and finally found out the actual capacity, two years later- 73 gallons!). Discovered (and replaced) leaking outlet fitting in tank. Aft head required an unclogging adventure, then replacing seals and hose and other work that I’d rather not know too much about. Thanks to my sweetie for being The One That Deals with the Head on board.

…and that’s just what he did on Totem! On friend’s boats, Jamie helped install a solar panel, did a few (three? four? five? I lost track) rig evaluations, and helped get one tuned properly.

I married well.


One of the more significant preoccupations outside of prepping Totem is working with coaching clients. We thoroughly enjoy helping people make the leap to successful cruising! More recently, the kids have gotten into a few of our Skype sessions, too: prospective cruising kids want to hear the real scoop directly from them. Sitting around the iPad, this is a pretty typical scene.


We closed our our Miami stay by anchoring in Marine Stadium, a sweet little spot with near 360° protection and a killer view of the downtown Miami. Backlit by twinkling lights from the skyline at night, we could detect dolphins circling Totem only by loud huffs of their breath. An idyllic spot to raft up and make some great memories with the pretty Huckins, Cortado (which is for sale, by the way), and her crew.




Totem from Cortado

Totem is now in Fort Lauderdale, on our final countdown to departure for the Bahamas. We don’t know when we’ll be back in the USA, but it’s probably some years. I’ve got an insane list, and it includes major items like, oh, battery bank replacement. Full watermaker servicing. Diesel mechanic services. Provisioning for 3 months in islands with limited stores, and high costs. Supplies for Bahamian communities still impacted by hurricane Mathew last fall. Then there are the incidentals “but we won’t be in the USA for how long?” that inflate our list. Here in the mainland, we have access to better breadth of goods, at a better quality, and a better value, than we will likely encounter for a long time.


It’s been blowing for days, but Totem is in a protected anchorage. There is access to supplies. Anchorage neighbors stopping by to chat from their kayaks. Visits from shoreside dwellers, arriving with friendship, the gift of papaya, and lessons in art (thank you, Jim!).


Life is beautiful. I’m grateful every day for the choices we have and our freedom as a family, and can’t wait to extend our adventures…starting soon in the Bahamas!

Cruising boat renovations


“I may have broken the aft cabin.” This is the text I get from Jamie a few hours after I’ve departed Totem for an overnight road trip to Miami. The smoky-green smell of sawdust wafts to me from half a state away and the disarray of a deconstruction project easy to picture. The critical path project for our departure from the US for the Bahamas is to replace the soft sides for our hardtop dodger, so of course, the aft cabin is going to be torn apart.

It comes down to this: cruising boat projects are more likely to be done when you can than when you want to. Those you do when you must often leave something to be desired based on local limitations. And over time, these done-as-you-could projects accumulate into something that stands to benefit from a re-do.

Kid / candy store

Kid / candy store

Here in Florida we have easy access to well-made, relatively affordable goods. It’s a short ride to a spectrum of lumber options and hardware. A selection of dying tools were readily replaced: drill, orbital sander, and a jigsaw Jamie’s had since he was 17. Quality wire at great prices was available with help from a friend. So a combination of two needs based in the aft cDSC04203abin—getting our batteries wired up correctly, and dealing with mold in the bamboo paneling—pushed this one to the fore.

Breaking the aft cabin stems from a must-do project that wasn’t done entirely right, based on local limitations. Nearly three years ago we replaced our battery bank back in Malaysia. Moving the bank location under our bunk helped address weight distribution on Totem, eliminating a port list. That move required different wiring to connect to the bus bar nearer the old nav station location. We didn’t have access to the right sized wires, so Jamie made it work by patching long cables.

The knee bone’s connected to the shin bone: charge controllers wired to the battery bank had been installed on a piece of bamboo paneling that got moldy thanks to the damp on board (possibly starting from this unpleasant passage, but condensation during the recent cold months was a kicker). Blinking lights reflecting off the headliner over our bunk at night doesn’t make for a romantic atmosphere (and is just kind of annoying!), so there’s a whole new utility closet being built in the cabin to house these in beautiful organization.

This might have been postponed, but access to the right materials to do it right bumped it up. The kicker was some very nice wires that friends helped us source (Asif’s a rocket scientist, a pilot, and a boat owner– thus knows not just a few things about wiring but a great place to buy quality marine-ready stuff for less).

There are a lot of concurrent projects on Totem right now, and while I’m dreaming about getting the dodger and bimini done (it will happen! It has to) it’s pretty exciting to see the improvements in our cabin.

Life rolls on! The roadtrip was relatively spontaneous. My friend Patricia Leat takes special needs kids and families out sailing on the healing waters of the ocean: she wanted to meet with her friend and Active Disabled Americans board member, Kerry Gruson, in Miami. As it turned out, I’m the one who lucked into a sail with this inspiring woman: Kerry has been paralyzed from the neck down for decades, but despite the limited mobility in her arms she helms the boat with tenderness and intensity. Team Paradise is the Miami-based organization that helps people of all levels of ability get out on the water. Wheelchair? Other needs? No problem, they figure it out.


I also met up with Pam Wall in Fort Lauderdale. Pam and I are delivering a two-day Cruising Women seminar alongside the spring boat show in Annapolis and had some coordinating to do! Between those two priorities, Patty and I worked in some meetups (Halden Marine, with the supremely helpful JT who provided watermaker troubleshooting for us from halfway around the world, and at Strataglass, to get materials for Totem’s dodger). Of course, you really should have a Cuban sandwich in Miami, too.


We’ve been lucky to spend time with special people, like my old nanny / au pair, Jorunn, who visited from Norway. I haven’t seen her in at least 40 years, but the face and the voice – I knew them, and it was wonderful.


Or hanging out with our friends on MV Cortado, who we can’t wait to see again down in Miami soon.


The ocean beaches, where hunting ospreys flaunted their catch, are best visited with a friend.



There are homemade pasta dinners with the McMermaids, another family who feels at one with the ocean.


Spontaneous visits by neighbors Kristen, Hans and their daughters, via dinghy, keeping our psyches closer to cruising while tied to a dock.


Getting to know Jacksonville a little: Anne Frank’s diary facsimile, in an exhibit at the Museum of Science & History.


Yet another Amazon delivery,.


And yet another sunset.