Lessons in flexibility, nurtured by cruising

Three kids and their mama as the eldest moves in at college

Last week we crossed into our eleventh year of cruising aboard Totem. Except we aren’t aboard Totem right now, and this summer has taken a different trajectory than planned. (Pictured today in Portland, Oregon; moving-in day for Niall at Lewis & Clark college.)

Shifting plans isn’t unusual for our family, for our voyaging life. We’re accustomed to having our plans swing, making big changes with little notice. Like last October’s diagnosis of Totem’s wet hull in Grenada, which changed our routing plans for the coming year. Or this summer’s revelation of my mother’s escalating dementia, which rewrote the plans for how we’d spend these few months back in the USA.

What makes change a constant?

Weather is the primary everyday factor influencing plans, making any schedule impossible to keep. You don’t leave port when the calendar says so, you leave when the weather indicates. Calendars are helpful as guidelines only! I cringe when I hear “we’re going to leave on (fill in a specific date).”

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Bermuda to Connecticut was an extended waiting game: PredictWind shows the Gulf Stream current meanders

Company alters plans, too. Any kid boat knows that intentions to depart may be thrown to the wind if a new arrival in the anchorage turns out have kids that hit it off with yours. It’s not just kids; other boats we wanted more time with have prompted Jamie and me to shift plans to meet them.

Plans should be swayed by the experiences in a new place: another reason why schedules are the enemy. When you find yourself in that perfect anchorage, for whatever reason—the reef to snorkel, the trails to hike, the connections made ashore: why rush off because your timeline says the next destination is due? Of course, this works both ways: when visiting swarms of bees made Puerto Ballandra unpleasant this spring, we left on minimal notice despite stated intentions to remain in place for a few days!

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Voyager at anchor in Ballandra
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That first one seems so innocent, drinking dew from the nonskid on deck… then 1,000 friends show up

New cultures and landscapes prompt us to adapt, too. In step with new norms, we change our interactions with people and places. It’s a whopping 48 countries/territories that we have experienced since sailing away from Eagle Harbor in August of 2008; each arrival prompts familiar questions. Will the markets be weekly or daily? At the crack of dawn or heat of afternoon? Is bargaining expected or unwelcome? How do people greet each other (and what’s the response)?  Is it safe to walk anywhere, or must care be taken?

This steady series of everyday decisions and regular transitions hones adaptability into a skill.  The common sense to seek what you need to know. The courage to base plans on human priorities instead of inhuman timelines.

This adaptability is one of the valuable skills we hope our son, Niall, took with him today as he moved into his college dormitory. It’s an exciting new chapter for our academic eldest, one sure to be full of new features to adjust to. One of the easiest, at least, will be personal space! He turned around in the capacious dorm room, and commented that the closet had more space than his cabin on Totem. (It does, too.) But he faces myriad adjustments in the weeks and months ahead.

The huge closet and comical shoe rack
There’s even a three tiered shoe rack in the closet! So we had to put in Niall’s shoes, for a photo op.

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Normal dorm room = palatial to a boat kid. Apparently we need Pinterest help for decor however.

Reaching for another tissue this afternoon, it hit home that adaptation is not just his, but ours: finding new rhythms as a family of four aboard. Expanding to fill the gaps he’ll leave around the dinner table, the chores list, the watch schedule, the ironic commentary. We’ll miss him, but embrace what’s ahead. As he has opportunities to grow, so do we: for Mairen and Siobhan, owning roles aboard Totem that he generally assumed with anchoring, reefing, watchkeeping.

Many cruising friends have moved back to land. Swallowed the anchor, as they say. And usually, they report that returning to “normal” sucks…and then they adapt.

We expect an October return to Totem in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. Back to an unscheduled, flexible life for most of the Totem crew. Niall has the double whammy of adjusting both to land life and schedule far more rigorous than the 3rd grade he sailed away from 10 years ago. It’s OK. He’ll adapt!

Niall on campus at Lewis & Clark

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. 

Big picture routing and Totem’s plans

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The Mystic river was blanketed with fog when we poked our heads into the cockpit this morning. Totem is anchored roughly between Mason’s Island and Noank: the shoreline is only about six boat-lengths away, but impossible to see. We had to get a compass direction to know which way to point the dinghy to go ashore. Lack of visibility mixed with sound insulation gave the strange feeling of being adrift while moored in our little floating home.

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Amtrak south station (thank you Joy & Alex!)

That sense of being out of step with our environment follows us during these first weeks back in the US. We’re happy to be here, just feeling a little unmoored. Focusing on the reason we’re back—time with family—helps. Early morning walks with my sister-in-law and her dogs…a new ritual. “Cousin camp” in Boston this last week, visiting my brother and his family (the kids’ cousin Lana has doubled in age since they last saw her in 2013). It’s nearly three years since the kids have seen their grandparents, too, who joined us in Boston for a mini-Fravel-reunion.

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Mairen and Siobhan bookend their cousin Lana

 

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Niall toasts his grandparents

When we feel our Differentness a little too keenly, it helps to focus on what’s ahead instead. What’s ahead breaks down into three stages: 1) this summer in New England 2) fall in the Chesapeake and working south, then 3) winter in the Caribbean.

Next week, we’ll head up to Narragansett Bay to visit with friends, old and new. Then it’s Buzzard’s Bay for a few days: Totem crew will speak as part of Falmouth Academy’s community series on July 18th (details on their website). From there we’ll sail to Nantucket before making our way back to the Mystic river, and settling back off Noank for the remainder of the summer. Planning an “open boat” for the second weekend– August 13-14–for whoever wants to come by. Just let us know.

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Radically scaled back plans for summer ’16: Maine? NH? maybe next year.

Our southbound track begins in early September. I can’t wait to come down the East River into New York City – I’ve dreamed about looking up at the buildings of Manhattan from the deck of Totem! We’d like to spend a week there before coast-hopping our way to the Chesapeake. Destination: the SSCA gam in Camp Letts, Maryland, which starts September 29. The US Boat Show follows a few days later in Annapolis (I’ll be with Voyaging with Kids publisher, Lin Pardey, in her booth). Niall tells us he needs at LEAST a week in DC to see the museums, and I bet he’d use more time if he had it, so we hope to linger in the Chesapeake for a solid month at least. There are things to do, people to meet up with, places to visit.

The problem with that, of course, is it will eventually get cold. You know what we miss already? That we’ll miss even more by then? Water this blue, and warm as a bath. So there’s really no question about the fact we’ll be heading back to the Caribbean for the winter.

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Ahhhh…..

Plans are fuzzier once we point south of the Chesapeake, late-Octoberish. There are myriad ways to get tot he Caribbean: it isn’t the straight up march south that left coast cruisers do to Mexico. Where will we land first? And how will we route after we get there? The only thing we KNOW at this point is that we want to spend a chunk of time in Cuba. For the rest, we have some decisions to make:

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…a tiny fraction of the options. Purple line was our track this spring.

  • Where to leave from the US? Carolinas, Georgia… or all the way to Florida?
  • How to route through Cuba? (Preference on board: the more rural south coast)
  • What’s the goal destination at the end of the season? We need to take this and prevailing conditions into account for a big-picture route. (Is it time for the Panama canal? Can we save enough $$ to do some work on Totem in Trinidad or Grenada? Another summer in New England, via Bermuda and the America’s Cup? CHOICES!).

I’m all for opinions, so drop a comment about places we shouldn’t ‘miss. There’s no rush to figure it out: a route will unfold, probably slowly. And meanwhile, we pick our way through the fog.

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After years as nomads, returning to the USA

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Dun colored cliffs on the back side of Block Island emerged from a hazy marine layer: our first sight of land as we approached New England. With each mile, landmarks and islets and buoys along the way tickled old memories of these waters where Jamie grew up racing, and where we met. Names remembered, but now unfamiliar enough they take a few beats to put into context. What’s the best channel east of Fishers Island? How close are the rocks off that point? What Jamie could have navigated blindfolded in years gone by needed careful chart references as we pointed towards landfall in Stonington, Connecticut.

Totem is in US waters for the first time since 2008. This is supposed to be a glorious feeling, this homecoming, but we were tense and a little stressed. Perhaps it stemmed from realization that a once-indelible mental map had faded. Certainly, a lot can be chalked up to the rough passage from Bermuda we were completing. Some was thanks to the terse reception from the boatyard, which ceased being helpful with our arrival (US Customs & Border Protection—CBP—officials work through their facility) when they learned we would be anchoring in the harbor that night (free) instead of paying them for a mooring ($50). But if I try to examine it honestly, it was also the niggling question: were we missed, after these many years gone by? Just as Jamie and I were getting a little snappy with each other a runabout motored up, carrying old friends hailing us and welcoming us home. More friends and family waited on the dock. Our mental cloud lifted.

Totem in her party dress: a strand of courtesy flags from many of the ~30 countries/territories we've visited

Party dress: a strand of courtesy flags from many of the ~30 countries/territories we’ve visited

First days back in the USA feel surreal. Kicking it off was the friendliest welcome by officialdom in eight years. CBP requests notice three hours in advance of arrival so they can send an official; it turns out Officer Alvarez drove out from Bridgeport, an hour and a half away from our landfall. We came ashore bearing a folio stuffed with the legacy documents of many past clearances, our passports, and boat stamp and ink pads. Disentangled from hugs with loved ones, we pulled ourselves together to get the official work done. It’s usually a series of papers to complete, declarations of what’s on board, crew lists completed in triplicate, etc. A little awkward while standing on a dock, I thought, but that’s OK, and just asked Officer Alvarez what we needed to do. And he gave us the most unexpected response:

“Welcome home, family! Can I take a picture with you?”

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Love this kid but his eyes are closed in 90% of the pictures

And THAT, my friends, was clearance back into the USA for our little crew. Oh, he did take the copy of our Bermuda port exit papers before leaving, but there was no lengthy process of forms and questions and stamps and judgment: it was a warm welcome, pure and simple. When that finally sank in, it took restraint for me not to give him a big hug! We spent about fifteen minutes on the dock, just chatting, answering his questions about our trip, basking in his reception and blessings (blessings!).Somewhere in all this…any vestige of arrival anxiety faded.

The kids then took off running down the dock, after Jamie told them they hadn’t REALLY connected the dots around the world till they set foot on shore. I think he actually instructed them to kiss the ground, which unfortunately we did not witness.

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Walking up the street afterwards, Niall soaked in his new surroundings. We got progressively punchy calling out all the American things to see: American flags! American license plates! Cars on the right side of the road! He was full of questions that reminded us our children are strangers in their homeland. It was the first of days answering questions about their environment, establishing norms that are ridiculously obvious to most Americans – just not so obvious to our three.

What’s that? – it’s a fire hydrant. And that stick on it? –it’s to show how deep the snow is, and where the hydrant might be under the snow. NO WAY! –yes, really! The questions and observations keep coming: there is that house a typical American house? (We’re in the painfully quaint hamlet of Stonington village, where charm is carefully molded in a Rockwell model of New England. No, that waterfront cracker box is not typical, and it’s probably worth seven figures.) And we have our moments of awkwardness. The kids expressed some discomfort at being surrounded by “spectacular wealth,” as Niall described it. I had my own predictable freakout in a grocery store that was normal by US standards, but dwarfed most I’ve seen for the last few years…found babbling in the cereal aisle, overwhelmed by options.

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Re-integration is eased in steps. The morning after arrival we sailed to Essex and the Seven Seas Cruising Assocation gathering, but before pulling up the anchor, met briefly with the teacher from Falmouth Academy who has engaged his class in join projects with us this year. Excited to meet him in person, he bowled us over with a welcome-home care package of treats: Hershey’s kisses. Chocolate chip cookies. Vermont sharp cheddar. Local craft beer. Twizzlers. And a gorgeous blueberry pie, because when their class asked over Skype what American foods we missed (Siobhan: “What’s American food?”), Niall chimed in with pie.

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Not so fast, Mairen! Surveying the loot…

Speaking at the SSCA gam both helped us process our own experiences, and benefit from the positive energy of sharing our knowledge. We hope to do a lot more of that while we’re back, and have a few yacht club and bookstore presentations lined up (contact us if you’d like to nominate a location!). But this first little roller coaster ride is just the beginning, and I’m sure there will be plenty of ups and downs as we get to know our home again and the myriad of ways it’s changed since we  left. For the kids especially, who for have grown up outside: Siobhan has no real memories of living in the US, and Mairen’s are few. And in truth, it’s fascinating seeing it through their eyes, unburdened by past experience.

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