Goodbye USA: extracting to the Bahamas

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Totem has left the building USA, and all is right with our world. We stayed months longer than planned stateside. It honed my appreciaPinterest boat buildings ocean floridation for how the sea has changed us. The happy family, photographed above on North Bimini’s beach, is glad to be back!

Final weeks in Florida were a little frantic, but Fort Lauderdale was a great place to stage for departure. It’s home to a commercial stretch literally named Marine Mile, and I’m pretty sure any boat-related product or service you could want is available there. We had great service from JT Halden’s watermaker shop, picked up quality media at Bluewater Books & Charts, ordered obscure Yanmar parts from Compete Yacht Services, and refueled during jaunts with an mouthwatering $4.95 Cuban sandwich (platanos extra). The Strataglass factory where I picked up our new dodger clears is there, as is McDonald Hardware (a family-owned hometown hardware store that has everything boaters need, and skips the “marine markup”) – I nearly lost Jamie in the narrow aisles!

We called Rogers Marine Services to give our Yanmar a checkup. John Rogers came recommended by friends who cruise their beautiful Florida-based Huckins powerboat, Cortado. John was GREAT and not just because he told us the engine was in good shape. Besides being an excellent diesel mechanic with a talent for clear explanations, he’s a USCG 1600 ton master / delivery skipper; he “gets” cruisers and our needs. FLL-bound boats: reach John at (954) 309-1004.

It was also a great time for me to work with Pam Wall on our upcoming Cruising Women seminar at the Annapolis boat show next month (just a few places left!). Pam is an icon in family cruising with tremendous experience, as well as an incredibly giving and helpful human who goes out of her way to make sure cruisers passing through her hometown of Fort Lauderdale find whatever they need. I’m grateful we met and felt that mutual “click” at the Annapolis show last fall.

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Pretty sure the dolphin was showing off! Species, anyone?

Not all of the extraction process was as enjoyable. It became plain that we had to replace our battery bank, which is a little painful (eased by our friend John, and some muscle from Niall and Mike on Gromit). We were generally stretched thin: taking on more in everyday life, because we had the opportunity and because we could. But I wouldn’t trade a single one of the things we did, from presenting at a Miami sailing club to time with new friends and memorable meetups with people we’d been in touch with over the years. But I did miss, and crave, our simpler life as cruisers.

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Four batteries off, four batteries on, nearly 200 lbs PER BATTERY. Yikes.

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You can only feel sorry for the officer dedicated to “protect and serve” who must issue laundry reprimands.

The clear sign that it was time to go was when a marine police officer stopped by Totem and told us to take our laundry down from the lifelines. City ordinance, you know, can’t be hanging it out! It’s not enforced unless reported, but a resident in one of the multi-million dollar homes fronting the anchorage had called us in. There are a whole host of things wrong there, but the benefits of Lake Sylvia’s anchorage outweighed any pettiness around this event: it’s free, a great Publix is walking distance from dinghy landing for provisioning, and Marine Mile is just a Lyft ride away. We simply finished drying those clothes spread on deck instead of fluttering in the breeze and were happy that a weather window had opened for us to leave.

Raising anchor at first light and sent off with a cheer from Jim, calling out from overhead on the 17th street bridge, Totem pointed into the Atlantic…and early start to help ensure enough light for the necessary eyeball navigation on arrival in Bimini.

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Just offshore: replicas of the Nina and the Pinta! They’re headed to Jupiter, FL this week.

Totem blog postIt is literally just a day trip from the Florida coast to the Bahamas. The short distance is treated with respect because the Gulf Stream must be crossed, and it can run several knots. That sets up the possibility for some truly nasty conditions when wind opposes the flow of current. It’s also the first time many boaters bring their vessel into a foreign country. Just two reasons why people make a big deal out of it, considering it’s about 50 miles away!

Patience is a virtue when waiting out winter systems, but we had a mellow day with calm seas and transited from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini was a mere nine hours. As we departed, Pam’s sister—a photographer and graphic artist—turned her talent and lens toward the ocean inlet for a beautiful shot of Totem. Thank you Wendy!

We would like to have made it further east, but yet another northerly wind forecast loomed and we didn’t feel like tackling the shallows of the Bahamas bank in poor conditions. Waking to squally skies and rain, it felt like a good choice to have stayed put. The anchorage we tucked into at the far end of the channel into North Bimini utterly lacked aesthetic appeal, but the recently dredged harbor-in-construction had great depth and a very sticky mud bottom…two things that can be hard to come by in the Bahamas. Clearance was friendly and efficient; one of the easiest examples of international clearance I can remember.

What the wind DID do is give us a great chance to truly road test a new design for clothes pins (pegs, clips, whatever you call them). With breeze solidly in the 30 knot range, we put up a heavy fleece blanket to get aired out, snapped on the FixClips, … and, well, check it out!

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DSC05103The way that blanket whipped around (and it did, ALL DAY), the FixClips had a thorough test. These fit variable widths, so you can use them on thin lifelines or fat stainless pipe; they have a simple locking mechanism that clamps them on tight. We were sent a few to try out last year, and I know they’re great in normal conditions…now we know they truly rock for high winds too (OK, so the Swedish manufacturer has a good demo video too). Our normal clothes pins wouldn’t stand up to what we put the FixClips through; we’d have lost pins, or laundry, or both. The only downside: they are bulkier and cost more than standard pegs. But given the fact I’m pretty sure I’ll *never* lose one and the UV-resistant material should give them a long life, it’s a good pick for cruisers.

When the wind did finally settle down we got to explore. Friends who are old hands in the Bahamas cautioned us not to develop strong impressions of the islands based on accessible, touristed Bimini; maybe expectations factored in, but we found it sweet. Supermarket smaller than our old garage. Pillowy-sweet Bimini coconut bread, hot from the oven, “like a coconut croissant” said Mairen. More golf carts than cars, and mostly with 3-digit license plates. Smiles or waves from passers-by, just because.

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The days of wind had kicked up sediment enough that the water clarity was poor, but that didn’t stop a few hours of fun splashing around.

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Testing out the new snorkeling masks. 42 Wallaby Way, anyone?

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Pelicans look suspended in the clear blue of Bahamian water

It felt good, SO GOOD, to just hang out as a family again. Walking on the beach, finding stray dogs to play with, looking for sea glass, reconnecting.

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The epic-sized hot tub at the nearby resort–  a monstrosity we forgive for also making wifi available to the anchorage– was just fine, thank you!

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Burial grounds for conch bones, in mountains behind various shacks and wharves in town.

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Invigorated by the prospect of so much to explore, so much to learn, so much to experience.

Cruising boat renovations

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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Yet another Amazon delivery,.

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And yet another sunset.

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How to fit a 64’4″ rig under a 64′ bridge

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We’re never going down the Intracoastal Waterway, I said. We’re too tall for the ICW, I said. Totem’s rig is about 68’ over the water, when everything is attached. The ICW is sprinkled with bridges; many of them open, quite a few do not. The controlling height over water for those fixed bridges is 65’ (and, there’s a 64’er in there just for fun). Totem doesn’t fit, but that’s fine, we’d rather sail offshore anyway. Besides being more fun than motoring, it’s faster. We’d get to Charleston in two and a half days going offshore; motoring down the ICW takes a multiple of that.

…And then we headed down the ICW anyway, motoring about 185 miles from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC.

Why? Because we made that fatal error in cruising: we had a schedule. Only one week to get from Norfolk (where Niall sat for the SAT on Saturday Dec. 3) to Charleston, SC (where he was due to take the ACT exam the following Saturday). For non-US readers, these exams are THE two standardized tests that high school students take for college/university applications. One week of time to make what should be a two-and-a-half-day offshore passage. No problem, right? Well, big problem if the forecast isn’t right. And it wasn’t. So with a gloomy weather outlook and the SATs over, we strategized how to squeeze our 68’ tall boat under 65’ bridges. Oh, that 64’ bridge that doesn’t fit the mold. Dangit!

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Stripping all instruments from the mast to prepare included Maretron weather station, windex (wind direction indicator), anchor light, and VHF antenna. The windex was brought down; the rest were taped up aloft. We filled all of Totem’s fuel tanks, water tanks and jerry cans to add ballast; then we measured, carefully, once again. Final height over water: 64’4″. When it came time to go under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge, we’d induce heel. And no, you can’t wait for the tide to go down. Water levels in that part of the ICW aren’t influenced by the moon, but by the weather. Wind from the south or storm systems can elevate levels, but there’s no tide to help us underneath.

More than a few people shared this video of a boat with forced heel in order to fit under a bridge. I swore we’d never do something like that to our Totem. Thanks to the 64′ air draft at Wilkerson, and our 64’4″, well… we were going to induce heel, too. When will the lesson stick that I should never say never?

Changes in plans bring silver linings. An extra couple of days in Norfolk meant finally meeting a friend in person. Always fun to bring out the weapons ceremonial cultural tools from PNG as props behind sea stories.

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We were treated to a fabulous raclette dinner (and a trip to Costco!) with the French-American family of a blog reader that has their own plans to go voyaging with kids someday.

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Departure from Norfolk was a gray drizzly morning. On the first day motoring “the ditch” had fifteen bridges and a set of locks to pass through.

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In company are two boats: our old friend Bill on Solstice (we’ve crossed two oceans together!) and the new-to-cruising Gromit crew. Mike, Brittany and their three girls (blogging here) bought the boat circumnavigated by a Canadian family that we met back in Malaysia. It’s slightly surreal to see Gromit again! Good company, but we had to leapfrog them the first day to get Niall to his exams on time, via rental car from Beaufort, NC.

It was a slow slog of bascule bridges, trestle bridges, fixed bridges…lots of rain, and not much traffic.

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Most of the bridges have a gauge so you can judge the available height based on the water level. Some are easier to read than others. At least we know this one is well over the 64’4″ we need!

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Besides being rainy, it’s cold. 30s overnight, 40s in the daytime. The channel dredged to depth that accommodates Totem’s 6′ draft is narrow, requiring constant attention at the helm. And because the old question of time and money has delayed replacing the dodger sides, the helm is exposed to the elements. Jamie is a champ: I kept him company and took the wheel now and then, but he did 99% of the three and a half days of motoring to Beaufort in less than comfortable conditions. At least on a few stretches the headsail gave a nice pull.

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The scenery is beautiful. I’ve heard people love this aspect of the ICW; of course,they mainly travel when it’s at least 20 degrees warmer and there are still leaves on the trees. I hadn’t given the it much thought since the route was written off as “not what we were doing” in my head. Absorbing the landscape of the inner banks was a gift.

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Long stretches held no signs of civilization; at other times, the intimacy of homes along the waterfront, where you can almost hear the TV flashing through a back window, felt uncomfortably close. And then there were the hidden gems, like this mysterious camper (Airstream?) overgrown with vines, or the hint of a classic car under cover in a back yard.

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We anchored in the water north of the Alligator-Pungo channel: turns out, military jets come here to play.

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Quiet evenings at anchor made for fun family time. The kids decided we were due to start holiday decorating, and so we did.

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What else did we do? Niall logging many hours daily on ACT practice tests and study guides. The girls did a lot of reading. There were a few rounds of Hamilton sing-a-longs. Ah, who am I kidding… that’s a nightly event currently (thank you Cindy!).

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The glassy anchorage at Alligator-Pungo was a perfect spot to finalize preparation for inducing heel to fit under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge the next day. We estimated we should have at least 6 degrees, and more was better. Talk about the PERFECT example of real-life trigonometry, just in time for our exam-cramming kid! Meanwhile, going aloft again, Jamie added a pigstick to the mast. PVC pipe, about 3″ diameter and 3′ long, facing forward. On a dead slow approach, if the stick hits the bridge — we bail out. If it passes under, no problem. All the jerry cans and a 50 gallon bladder tank filled with water were strapped on the starboard side deck.

As we got close to the bridge, further heel was induced. Additional weight at the end of the boom, swung out starboard, would further increase our angle of heel. First, our 18hp Tohatsu was tied on. Then, the spare anchor, a 70 lb CQR. This came with Totem: it’s the first time we’ve used it. Next, a couple of full jerry cans, and a heavy bag of rigging hardware.

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Then, we added the kids. Probably should have put PFDs on. Please don’t judge.

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We estimate we had 500 lbs on the boom, in addition to an extra 700 lbs on the starboard side deck. To top it all off, Jamie opened a through hull and we flooded the bilge with another 40 gallons or so of swamp water. At Wilkerson, the water gauge read a about 63’11”.

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Hooo boy. Boom OUT, heel ON!

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The pigstick test worked: a sigh of relief as it passing under the last of the girders.

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Yeah yeah yeah yeah! A very happy family.

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Jamie’s comment: size doesn’t matter. Trig does.

A few resources were especially helpful down the Norfolk to Beaufort, NC, path for the ICW:

I made a document that outlined our progress by hazard (and, what we’d do about each hazard). Inputs to these: Active Captain, the Salty Southeast Cruisers’ Net, and the ICW cruisers guide. Water levels at Neuse as a proxy for what we might see at Wilkerson. It’s amazing what details are in the USCG notice to mariners and US Army Corp of Engineers sites for updates on dredging and mark placement. The human factor is always the best, and in true cruiser tradition, the best came from a roundup of “ICW doulas” who were a big help with our last-minute decision to go down the ditch instead of making an offshore passage. My friend Judy Hildebrand, a delivery skipper who has driven boats (including Totem’s sisterships) up and down the ICW many many times. Nicola, Suzanne, and many more members of the awesome ICW subgroup from Women Who Sail.

It was beautiful if chilly trip. I’d like to think that was “roll credits!” but… well, never say never. Looks like we’ll start down the ICW again, leaving from Beaufort tomorrow…

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem... already sporting an ICW moustache!

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem… already sporting an ICW moustache!

Distance is relative: upriver to Washington DC

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You’re going to Washington DC with your boat? You know that’s going to take days, right? It’s really far away!

We heard this from nearly every individual around Annapolis that we told of our plans to take Totem up the Potomac. From Annapolis, it’s about four days of motoring (if you’re lucky, some sailing).  I’m sure that once upon a time, when our cruising life was contained in long weekends or vacation trips, we would have regarded the time it takes to go south in the Chesapeake Bay, and then north again, as “really far” too.

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Our bigger issue is that it’s getting cold, now that we’ve cracked into November.

COLD.

Diggin’ out the old oversized so you can layer under them foulies cold. It dipped into the 30s overnight in this pic.

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When we meet people here at home who are amazed at the distance our family has traveled, I have trouble accepting the recognition. I remember well enough when a few hundred miles WAS “really far.” Kind of like how that first overnight jaunt feels a little scary. You overthink the watch schedule, forget something you shouldn’t, and have just enough jitters enough that nobody really sleeps anyway. You string together a few more daytrips than usual to make tracks. And there’s a point along the way when the rhythm feels natural, and suddenly…going “really far” is not such a big deal.

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We anchored for a few nights at St Mary’s, MD, for Niall to tour the college and meet with admissions, and for the rest of us to explore the historic town. Founded by 300-odd settlers in the 1630s, it’s now carefully preserved including re-enactment of 17th century settler life by costumed docents. A replica of the 17th-century trading ship Maryland Dove, one of two ships which made up the first expedition from England to Maryland, awaited.

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Maryland Dove had really informed guides to help us understand the vessel in the context of it’s time. Anybody know what this is?

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Because it’s standard issue on boats of this era, and something I’d never encountered before, but really, really fascinating. Go ahead, guess here or on our Facebook page post! I’ll add it to the comments….EVENTUALLY. 🙂

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How cruising kids boatschool, example #724: spending the day exploring a national historic landmark, having 1:1 conversations with the staff who interpreted of daily life of the early settlers and indigenous  Yaocomaco  who lived here. Their rich information makes the skeleton structures feel real, the archeology sites tangibly important to preserving this slice of the past.

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Siobhan and the 17th century seaman reenactment character… shoeless.

The next anchorage was a little bay tucked on the east side of the Potomac, 30ish miles south of DC. Another reason it was well worthwhile to take Totem up here instead of day-tripping in traffic from Annapolis: Mallows Bay is the final resting place for more than 230 ships, mostly of which were built for WWI. The war ended, they were considered useless and scuttled…burned to the waterline and sunk.

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It is surreal.

We paddle right past the bones in our dinghy, in water so shallow it threatens the tubes of the RIB.

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During WWII, Bethlehem Steel built a salvage operation to wrest scrap from the mostly wooden vessels: that left a mark, too. Today this bow is home to a massive (9′ diameter?) osprey nest.

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The beaches around Chesapeake Bay are full of fossilized shark’s teeth. We tried.

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It’s stops like this that make me grateful we can take time. Whatever semblance of a schedule we have now is driven by a balance between wanting to make the most of the opportunity to spend time in the US capital…and not getting too cold.

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The Totem madrasa is in session. Actually, Jamie was giving a civics lesson.

We’re now 100 up the Potomac river. This is further inland than we have ever been on Totem. And there’s a warm weather break, thankfully. So surreal to see the Washington Monument in front of Niall, as he takes the helm when we anchored off DC.

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Shirtsleeve weather. Enjoying it while we can!

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And although the rest of the southbound fleet has basically left us in the dust, we’re planning to spend a few weeks here. Why? Because we CAN, and because the learning opportunities are outrageous! We are trying to limit ourselves to One Thing Per Day, because otherwise… total overload. And we have the luxury of time…to soak places in without going numb from the input.

Day one was at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History with Dr Christopher Mah. Introduced by a mutual friend a few years ago when we were trying to ID some of the interesting critters spotted underwater, he gave us an unforgettable behind-the-scenes tour. This invertebrate biologist is deeply respected in his field, and I feel tremendously grateful for the perspective he gave us on his work and the NMNH.

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Storage areas are like Raiders of the Lost Ark. OH, the treasures within!

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…and the treasures just sitting out, dated generations past, named by explorations you would recognize. History in the vaults.

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Another day, we gave a presentation in this room at the Department of Homeland Security to a range of senior officials from a variety of disciplines. A lucky opportunity after one attended our marina meet-n-greet presentation near Annapolis a couple of weeks ago. We really enjoy sharing from our experiences, and had fun tuning a few stories for the audience: piracy, working with officials in foreign countries, that time we befriended the families of the secret police tasked with following us in a corner of SE Asia.

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Walking the mall with Annapolis friends, checking out the Air & Space museum in DC…

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…ahead of visiting the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space museum near Dulles, thanks to friends from near Baltimore. MINDBLOWING. This panorama of the view at entry is just a teeny glimpse into how massive and amazing it is (thank you Scott & Sara!).

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Here’s another perspective on the massive scale at Udvar-Hazy: the space shuttle Discovery… that’s Niall, circled in orange, at bottom right.

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dsc01623Today’s destination: the capitol. Arranging a tour through our senator… well actually, I think the path/topics are not hugely different from the tour you’d get with the general public. But we had a smart intern, a small group with our family plus 2 others (vs a couple dozen), and WE GOT TO RIDE THE COOL SECRET TROLLEY.

This is just the first five days. We’ve got a bunch more. And DC has what feels like a bottomless supply of experiences, learning, history, unforgettable things to see and do. That question about why we’d go “really far” to be here just needed to be pulled out of the context of weekend/holiday sailing. Being able to go slow is our luxury, and not having a lot of traditional luxury in life, we’re going to revel the sh*t out of this one.

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At least two more weeks here. So yeah, we’ll be cold. But when else can we do this again? And how crazy/cool to be in DC for the elections?

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Hey, we’re in Huffington Post! Check out the article here, it’s full of pictures from eight years of cruising.