Switching to the Dark Side

I've owned and used Apple computers since the old Apple II days. Remember those tiny black & white screens with nothing but text? Wow, they did amazing things, having grown up in the pre-computer, pound it out on a manual typewriter, era. I was pretty good at typing (on a typewriter) after college because you didn´t dare make an error or you had to retype the entire page! That´s when I learned to think first, type later, which is exactly opposite to what today´s computer users do, if the Internet is any indication.

Well over the years I used, abused, and learned to love and hate a long string of PCs and Apples. I really loved my $3000 Powerbook 180 maxed out with 8 mb of RAM. In fact, I still have it and I fire it up periodically to remember the joys of System 7. I bought one of the first iMacs. It was so cool and blue. Then, when we took off to go cruising for a few years I got a neat new 12-inch iBook to have for onboard writing and some navigation with GPS NavX. It worked great until it stopped working one day a couple of months ago, but the seeds of disatisfaction had been sprouting for most of the last year. 

First I discovered there was no software for allowing speedy email services like GMN or Ocens to work with my Iridium phone. Then I found out that there weren´t a whole lot of charts available for GPS NavX, at least outside of the U.S. Then I discovered that when things go wrong with an Apple outside the U.S., you are on your own. Every third world country has PC repair guys on every other street corner, but Apple folks are nonexistant. Need something ordinary like a new hard drive--forget it with an Apple. 

So Apples violated one of my hard and fast cruising rules--don´t have it onboard if you can´t either fix it in Timbuktoo by yourself, or if you can´t live without it. So, I´m going over to the dark side and getting a new PC laptop. I hope it isn't too scary over there.

Happy Thanksgiving

Yes, we do celebrate Thanksgiving, and most other holidays, out here. Sometimes there's a mad search for a turkey--what is the word for turkey in Spanish? You get some funny looks as you flap your arms and gobble to the butcher.

We were resigned to getting a nice roast chicken--preferably roasted by someone else to avoid heating the boat up--but Club Nautico marina saved the day by planning a big Thanksgiving bash, complete with five turkeys and all the fix'ins.

Our family will be a bit bigger than usual this year. They'll be from all over the world. Some friends counted 27 different countries represented by boats in the anchorage and in the marina. Maybe we don't really have United Nations, but when it comes to a party, cruisers are of one mind. Bring on the food, bring on the drinks, bring on the dancing!

Colombians are of the same mind. Mention a holiday or a special occasion and Colombia breaks out the streamers, the live music, and the smiles. The country has a lot to cry about, so it makes up for it by laughing a little bit longer and harder when the chance presents itself. Holidays are good here.

It is Different out Here

Cruisers are different. I look at our children. They are not segregated by age or grade level in school. The teenagers play with the young ones. The English-speaking kids play tag with the French and Dutch kids. The Colombians love to talk to the English-speaking kids, everyone struggling to understand but enjoying the struggle.

The kids don't hold back--they shout, "Look, there are kids on that boat, let's go over and say Hi!" The adults are the same. Some wear neat khakis and polo shirts, but they're likely to be having beers with a group that looks like pirates, with torn T-shirts and no shoes.

If there's an emergency there is no hesitation. Boats converge on the boat that is dragging anchor and tow it out to safe water, even though the owners are ashore somewhere. Someone needs to go to the emergency room and we all open our wallets to lend her money, even though we have never met and don't even know her name. We have no doubt she will pay us back. It might be days or weeks, but she will pay us back. She would do the same for us.

I once had someone toss me a $250 engine part as his boat passed by--I found him two days later and returned the part--he never learned my name or even where I was headed. What goes around comes around.

You Want to Tear Your Hair Out!

It gets very frustrating trying to do the simplest boat projects out here. There are four major places to get hauled in Cartagena. I liked the look of Club de Pesca's lift. It would be gentle on the boat, close to the water for a bit cooler temperatures, and we'd be the only boat around so we wouldn't have to eat sanding dust. Well, they have a three-week waiting list.

So I'm off to my second choice, Manzanillo Marina Club, to see if they can get us in quicker. Of course, their tiny lift requires us to unrig the roller furler and forestay--at least--and maybe undo some of the mizzen rigging. At least they have a pressure washer, which the other yards don't have. Of course, there is an extra fee for that, and we have to negotiate prices with other teams of workers for various jobs.

First I need to get some antifouling paint. I wanted blue, but that is almost unavailable. The last two cans were taken at the Hempel dealer. Plus Hempel's prices were sky high. So I found someone who could get Sigma at a discount, but only in red. Yuck! I wanted black as my second choice, but now I'm down to my third reluctant choice.

Oh yes, the boatyards will only take payments in cash, which of course is dangerous to carry around in large amounts. A French couple was relieved of about $5000 last week while on their way to pay a boatyard bill. Their taxi was stopped at gunpoint, so someone tipped off the thieves. The saga will continue...

I'm Back!

The marine climate is tough on computers, and electronics and Cartagena's climate is tougher than most. My laptop seems to be gradually succumbing, while I madly try to back up what I can during the 30 minutes or so of operation I get before it crashes. Then I wait a day before getting another 30 minutes of normal computing. Aargh!

The only slight consolation is that just about everyone else in the cruising fleet seems to be going through the same contortions with their computers. Today's cruisers' radio net brought a call for help with a balky Pactor modem connection (for SSB email). Yesterday someone was looking for a computer cable to replace a busted one. A friend has retired his monitor after the first one expired.

And, this stuff isn't easy to get here in Cartagena. I don't dare have something shipped in as it may not arrive, and if it does the cost to get it will be very high. I was quoted $80 to have a one-pound package sent via FedEx, which is the only reliable shipper.

My advice is to make sure you have at least two computers onboard and have reliable backups for critical things like charts or email. I carry paper charts and print paper backups for electronic charts. I also have Web access to my email. If my computers totally fail I can get email from an Internet cafe or someone else's computer. Back up! Back up!

Life on the Hook

Life on the hook is generally good. We prefer use our anchors, while some like to tie up in the floating ghetto known as a marina. It's a nice ghetto, but it is still a ghetto.

In other words, I like to be able to toss a cold cup of coffee overboard without dousing my neighbor. I like to get up in the middle of the night to check out the weather in my underwear. I like to lie on the deck and enjoy the cool evening breeze.

I don't like telling someone to please stop fiberglassing at 10 PM. I don't like asking someone to please drown your dog before I do it. I don't like joining the party unless I want to join.

Sure, there are nights when I have to sleep in the cockpit to keep one eye on dragging boats, and my wife would love to have air conditioning. But, we do swing into the wind, when there is any, so we get whatever natural cooling there is. On the really hot days I don't see much of the marina folks--they stay huddled around their air conditioners. I do think that they get air conditioned bodies that melt when exposed to tropical air. You can see it on their faces--they're thinking "why did I come outside?"

You participate in the weather when you live at anchor. If it's windy, you know it. When it's hot, you sweat. When it's sunny, you roast. But, you also get the best of the best moments. You wake up at dawn and see the sun rise, then you watch the sun set over the water while those ashore enjoy their air-conditioned cocktails and watch TV. I like the connection with nature. It's why I go boating. The bad times just make the good times seem that much better, and you get used to dealing with whatever is dished up, which makes the bad times gradually seem less and less bad. Got that?

Goodbye to an Old Friend

I've said goodbye to an old friend. He always held when the shit hit the fan, even if he required some careful handling from time to time. He was stronger than Hercules, shedding insults and injury like the superhero he was. But, he was getting long in the tooth.

The new heros on the block took over long ago. The new boys don't rely on brute strength as much as guile. They out think the baddies instead of clobbering them into submission. I like that, but there was always something reassuring about knowing you had the strongest friend on the block, even if he wasn't always the slickest character.

My old friend was down there during Hurricane Gloria when the eye passed right over Katydid, taking most of the mooring field away with it. My old friend held. It was down there in the Storm of the Century in North Carolina. It was down there during the storm that later became the Perfect Storm when it went to the Grand Banks. It was down there in Hurricane Bob, with gusts over 100 blowing trees over the cabin top.

He still has lots of his kin out there, and he will continue on cruising proudly on the bow of a neat French aluminum cruiser. Yep, I sold my last CQR anchor at a boater's flea market here in Cartagena. I wasn't going to let it go for a song--it was just as good as the day it was drop forged. But, I was tired of breaking toes (two this year) on it. I couldn't remember the last time I used it. It was nice to know it was there, but now my Bulwagga rides the place of honor on the bow roller, backed up by two Fortress secondaries. I feel secure with that trio, but who knows, maybe I'll see if a Spade or a Rocna can displace one of the gang.

Anchor in the Middle

Someone swam out to our boat yesterday and apparently was trying to climb aboard (I was ashore with the dinghy) when my wife asked him what he was up to. He swam to shore and took off. We were anchored in a good spot in Cartagena, in nice shallow water close to shore with good holding. It was also convenient to the dinghy dock at Club Nautico, but it was obviously too convenient for those on shore who might be interested in checking out how the rich gringos live. 

Of course, we have no idea what he was up to, and I suppose it could have been an innocent swimmer who was getting a bit tired, but we doubt it. So we moved to a spot where we could drop the anchor in 12 meters of water in the midst of the cruising fleet. We’re now surrounded by friendly eyes and ears, and Colombian Coast Guard patrols pass nearby.

Hopefully, that’s all we’ll need to do to feel safer. Usually, making yourself a slightly more difficult target than the next boat is all you need to do to be safe. Lock the dinghy and they’ll go for the unlocked dinghy. Close the hatches and they’ll go for the boat left open. Put away the loose gear and they’ll choose the boat with tempting items in plain view. Anchor in the midst of the cruising fleet and they’ll go for the boat in the isolated cove where no one is watching.

Luckily, cruisers are a very observant and helpful lot, and they tend to watch what is happening on other boats, if only to make sure the other boat isn’t dragging anchor. That can be a real safety plus if security is a concern.

Iridium for Email

I opted for sending and receiving email via an Iridium phone, instead of using SSB or Ham systems. One of the reasons was that we were pushing the hurricane season and we didn't have enough time for the difficult installation of a SSB radio, groundplane, antenna, tuner, etc. Another was cost. I could be up and running with Iridium for less than $2000, and no installation fees.

Well, like most things marine, the cost was more than I planned. The biggest problem was coming up with a connection between the serial port on the Iridium phone and the USB ports on my computer. After trying several different USB/serial adaptors, with none of them working, I purchased a PCMCIA card with dedicated serial cord. That solved the connection problem.

Another big expense was signing up for an email service provider. I could access my usual gmail or other account, but specialized providers have compression and other technologies that they claim greatly speed up email transfers. I ended up purchasing service from GMN, which I am generally satisfied with. A bonus is that when connected to WiFi ashore the transfer of emails is blazingly fast. Onboard the transfer is pretty slow, but I have managed to send seven emails and receive 14 in about a minute and a half of airtime, which translates to about $1.50.

I love getting daily weather via email even when offshore, and it is great to stay in touch with friends and family. So far I don't miss the SSB nets, but they could be useful at times. Ideally, I would like to have a SSB and an Iridium phone, but I think our choice of Iridium first proved to be the correct one. A huge bonus is the capability to make phone calls from anywhere (even the life raft), though the cost is too high for casual use.

After One Year

Some good friends of ours, the Johnsons on Side by Side, are taking off on their catamaran this year. The other day I received an email asking me for my thoughts on gear after a year out here. Actually, it's not exactly correct to say we've been out for a year, as Leslie and I have been cruising off and on since around 1976. But we do have a new boat, to us, Minke, a Finnsailer 38 motorsailor. I sent the Johnsons my thoughts, but I've subsequently rethought things. So here are the best five things we brought and the five things we brought but didn't need:

Glad we have:
1. Inflatable kayaks for the kids--it gives them independence, and we have back up dinghies if the big inflatable is stolen.
2. Electronic chart plotting and charts for the PC--we've ended up going all sorts of places we didn't plan on going, and the electronic charts allowed us to do so. But, I always print out charts in case the electronics fail.
3. Bulwagga Anchor--never fails while other boats are dragging all around us.
4. Manual ABI anchor windlass--powerful and always works, but it is slow.
5. Lots of anchor chain--we sleep more soundly knowing the rode won't chafe through, and we can use less scope in tight anchorages.

You'll note there's a theme for a lot of that list. Your anchoring gear is probably the most important gear onboard. You'll be at anchor a lot more than underway, and you'll probably be in worse weather while at anchor then when offshore, if you're watching the weather like you should. Don't scrimp on anchoring gear.

Probably don't need:
1. Pressure cooker--Leslie has used it only once a month or so and it takes up a lot of stowage space.
2. Spare CQR 45-lb anchor. It used to be our old faithful, but it now takes up deck space and breaks toes. The Bulwagga is our main with several aluminum Fortresses for second anchors. I'd trade the CQR for a really big Fortress.
3. Our built-in 3KW generator, which has never worked, is heavy, and takes up a lot of space. I'd rather have more solar panels and/or a portable generator.
4. Full carpeting--we had nice new carpets made, but in the tropics they are too hot and get dirty from sweaty feet. We now have painted floorboards and a few small throw rugs.
5. Our 12/120 volt refrigerator, which is very inefficient in terms of power consumption. I wish we had a bigger holding plate fridge or a newer generation, more efficient 12-volt unit.

San Blas to Cartagena

I'm writing this from the dock of Club Nautico, located in Cartagena, Colombia. It is quite a change from the remote San Blas. We have wifi, eat out at restaurants, snack on ice cream, climb castle walls, and shop the street vendors.

The trip from the San Blas was uneventful, except for one 30-knot squall and losing our alternator as we entered the harbor--normal cruising stuff. The alternator was swapped out for our spare. I'm getting pretty good at doing this. I've done it three times in one year.

The harbor is busy with freighters, navy boats, and helicopters overhead. Some nights loud music starts around midnight and continues until 8am or so--Colombians party late and early. 

The old part of the city looks like Spain. It is surrounded by a stone wall that you can walk on. Street vendors push emeralds, and everything else. They get right in your face and won't let you go, but the Colombians ignore all. It helps if you try to dress a bit like a local: long pants, a nice shirt, and shoes and socks for men. Unfortunately, that is also the way to be hot--why do people wear these get ups in the tropics? Some days I just go out looking like a gringo instead of sweltering, but if you're off to the Port Captain's office or Immigration it is best to show respect.

Cartagena is a great walking city. We can be in the old town in 20 minutes. The supermarket is 5 minutes from the marina. Great and inexpensive restaurants are just around the corner. Despite all the rumors, this part of Colombia is relatively safe. Some people describe Cartagena as a "demilitarized zone" where Colombians can take their families and enjoy living a normal life.

Colombians are very friendly and helpful, though it would be useful to speak Spanish--Leslie is taking courses right now. The harbor water is incredibly dirty and barnacles are growing like crazy on our bottom, so we're thinking about hauling soon to renew our bottom paint. There are good boatyards here with reasonable prices and help available. Ian and Heather are having a great time in the marina with their friends. This is a good place.

San Blas Islands 3

The San Blas continued to get better and better for us, as we learned to understand and appreciate the Kunas more. The scenery remained amazing--like living in a calendar.

Leslie wanted to see some dancing so we went to a Chicha festival on Nalunega. This is where everyone gets smashed on the local brew--Chicha-- to celebrate the arrival at womanhood for one of the family. The earlier parts of the festival were off limits in a giant thatched hut, but we could pretty much tell what was happening by the way people staggered out of the hut.

The dancing came later, after dark, and was accompanied by chanting, clapping, and flute music that sounded very much like American Indian routines. There was a brief scary moment when Heather disappeared, just at dusk and in a village with no lights, but she was just running around with some other Kuna children. Heather was a big hit in the village as she was recognized by some of the Kuna children from an earlier visit. Heather gave one of the kids a stuffed animal, which was a much appreciated gift. When the father learned of this he had us all visit his house, meet his wife and extended family, and partake of fresh drinking coconuts. We reciprocated by taking and printing up a photo of the family (bring a small printer with you), which I was able to deliver later that day.

Another highlight of our San Blas visit was the time we spent in the Holandes Cays near the Swimming Pool anchorage--a spot popular with American cruisers. The Swimming Pool has some of the clearest water in the San Blas, tons of snorkeling opportunities, good fishing, and a sheltered anchorage. Though, again, we rode out several strong chocosanas, but with no trouble. Just be prepared for 40 or 50 knots from the southeast, and you're all set for a "choco."

Heather and Ian had fun with two girls on the catamaran Chewbacca. We all enjoyed Monday night potluck BBQs on aptly named BBQ Island. Surprisingly we rarely anchored with more than six or seven other boats around, and usually less. It was the rainy season, with lots of lightning and storms, but most of the time the weather is great. This has to be one of the best cruising areas in the Caribbean and almost nobody is here!

San Blas Islands 2

Leslie has quite a collection of molas, from various islands, and of various qualities. Some mola sellers are pushy and some are friendly. They all drive hard bargains. Going prices seem to range from $5 to about $20, with the highest quality ones going for $40 to $80, though we never bought any of those. The things to look for are fine stitching, intricate patterns, and lots of detail. The better molas are on bright high quality cloth, while sometimes old molas that are faded can be bought at a discount. Sometimes you have to wash them to remove the strong smoke smell (the Kunas use fires for cooking and light).

I'm not a mola expert, but I enjoy looking at the interesting designs that represent various aspects of Kuna life. After you've seen the peaceful Kuna Yala, with tall, swaying palm trees, sweeping sandy beaches, and protective coral reefs, you can better appreciate the stories and images within the molas.

A typical day in Kuna Yala begins with us waking around sunrise. After breakfast, Ian and Heather break out the books from the Calvert system. Hopefully, school is done around lunchtime, or a bit later some days. Then it's off in kayaks or dinghies to the reef for some snorkeling, or to Starfish Island for a game of tag on the beach. In the Coco Bandero Cays we were anchored so close to shore that we frequently just swam in.

When we had a 56-knot chocosana (wind from the mountains), that closeness was rather scary. Boats dragged all around us, and we were 50 feet from a reef, but our Bulwagga anchor held, backed up with a Fortress anchor that I dropped in the middle of the night as the lightning approached. Minke was one of two (out of eight) boats that didn't drag anchor that night.

Out here we're on our own when something like that happens: no Coast Guard and no Sea Tow. Insurance wouldn't do you much good either--there's nobody to spend the insurance money with. You'd better spend the money on heavy anchors, chain, and rope.

San Blas Islands

Friends from Providencia had been calling around on the radio to find us, and we soon were chatting now that we were back in radio range. They were all in the Coco Bandero Cays so we hightailed it for there.

Heather helped pilot us in by climbing up to the spreaders. In tropical waters, which are often very clear, one learns to follow channels by observing changes in water coloration. This technique works very well, once you are used to it, but it can be thwarted by poor lighting conditions.

The anchoring area in the Cocos was very tight and we had to use a precision anchor drop to get in just the right place, with enough scope (anchor chain) out to allow the anchor to hold properly without letting us hit the reefs when the wind switched. We were soon anchored comfortably, enjoying the companionship of old friends.

Heather and Ian were off in the inflatable kayaks to play on the beach, and we enjoyed evening cocktails on starfish island. Kuna Indians came by to offer us fish and langousta from their wooden dugout canoes, though they proved to be hard bargainers. They are amazing boatmen, paddling and sailing miles across open ocean waters in boats that most of us would have trouble getting into or out of. Sometimes one Kuna has to bail constantly to keep the things afloat, but they seem to always make it.

However, one night Leslie and I saw a family struggling against wind and waves to make shore. The old grandpa was in the stern with a little boy of about eight in the bow. In between were mom and daughter, both with little babies. The waves were washing over the ulu as they struggled to make shore. We motored out in our dinghy and took the women and babies off, then splashed our way over to their island while the grandpa and child paddled the canoe in. The family invited us to visit the next day and we returned to buy some molas and see their island.

Another Kuna known as Serapio, was famed for being a bit of a crook, but we didn't know that. He talked us into giving him $50 to buy some groceries for us, and we wondered if we would ever see him again. Luckily, Leslie and Heather must have charmed him because the crook returned with everything we ordered, much to the surprise of the other cruisers.

Colon to the San Blas Islands

Three weeks in Colon went smoothly, and we enjoyed stocking up with fresh supplies from excellent supermarkets with reasonable prices--how about 1 liter boxes of wine for less than $2! \

We also restocked our malaria medicine at prices about one-quarter of those in the U.S. Leaving the Colon breakwater I glanced over my shoulder only to discover a freighter closing on us at warp speed--for such clumsy looking things they move very fast. We dodged out of the way and headed out into a lumpy sea.

We were soon motoring under the ramparts of several old forts in Portabello, which claims the dubious distinction of being the wettest place on the North American continent. A stiff climb to the top of a slippery hill brought us to the highest redoubt of one of the forts, and it was picturesque looking down on the cruising boats far below.

The next day we went on to Linton, which is known for its monkey island. None of the guides told us that the monkeys are actually the missing links between man and ape, and they walk perfectly normally on two legs. At first I thought there must be pygmies ashore, but they were awfully hairy ones with rather small heads. The giveaway was the long curling tail behind, which was more like a third leg that they sometimes used for hanging or sitting on. It rained for about 24 hours straight, challenging Portobello for its title, and I had to bail the dinghy three times over the course of the night.

The San Blas Islands were our destination so we pressed on, and were soon anchored at Porvenir where we were able to exchange our zarpe (clearance) for an entry permit to the Kuna Yala--land of the Kuna Indians. The Kunas govern themselves semi-independently, but the area is nominally part of Panama. The U.S. dollar is still the local currency, though you can do some trading if you have the right stuff (mostly food and clothing). The village near Porvenir was classic Kuna/National Geographic: thatch huts, narrow swept-dirt walkways between, Kuna women dressed in and selling molas (intricate embroidered cloths), and lots of happy little children enjoying watching the funny gringos.

Panama Gets Better

To enhance our less-than-enthusiastic feeling about Panama, we discovered a small bit of water leaking out of our boat's exhaust line. The water was coming from a piece of hot pipe that should not have had water in it. 

Something was rotten in there, but Bocas was not the place to find out what. At least the engine appeared to be running normally, and we figured exhaust pressure would keep any water out of the engine--as long as the engine was running.

We stocked up on diesel, and set off for the 120-mile overnight run to Colon, where the Panama Canal begins. This trip was with some trepidation. Cruisers know Colon as the town where all money should be stored in your sock, to avoid pickpockets, and it's the place where you don't venture anywhere, except by taxi. Some friends had their engine block stolen off the dock next to their boat at the Panama Canal Yacht Club.

However, we were pleasantly surprised to find the new Shelter Bay Marina welcoming, safe, and very comfortable with its air-conditioned lounge and disco showers (you have to experience them to believe them).

The marina contacted a mechanic for us, transplanted from the U.S. so language wasn't a barrier. Three weeks later we had a new exhaust, our wallets were a lot lighter, and we had explored lots of jungle trails complete with monkeys, wild dogs, and panthers.

We never saw the panthers, but one day Leslie called the marina to have someone find me so I could rush out to rescue the kids from the panthers. Ian and Heather were off to the beach with some friends, Leslie was on the bus in Colon, and I was supposed to be working on the boat. Leslie heard from someone on the bus that a big cat had been spotted on one of the trails, so she called the marina to alert me. I ran off through the jungle, carrying a big stick, only to find no kids at the beach--they had gone to a different beach. Miles of running later, I found the kids, didn't see any big cats, and I needed to drink lots of cold water. The joys of the jungle.

Providencia to Panama

We had a great time on Providencia Island. We went to horse races on the beach, climbed the peak with the Port Captain (complete with armed escort), snorkeled on the reefs, ate out at friendly little restaurants, and even met the taxi driver's family. 

The driver just stopped suddenly one day, seemingly nowhere near our destination. He wanted us to meet his wife, children, and mother, and we all spent a delightful few moments exchanging pleasantries before continuing on. 

That sums up Providencia: one of the friendliest places in the Caribbean. The winds built for awhile, and a tropical wave passed overhead that later became Tropical Storm Alberto. This let us know it was time to continue south in order to get below the hurricane belt (10 degrees north), which is only a short distance south of Providencia.

In company with Good Karma, we set off with a big wind and a big sea from the east, which soon petered out and we were motorsailing with lightning all around for most of the night. A channel of clear sky through the clouds pointed directly to Bocas del Toro, our Panama destination.

Our dawn arrival was straightforward, though the lighthouse wasn't working, which is rather typical for much of the world. Thank goodness for GPS. We were soon anchored, called customs on the radio and we began to clean up the boat in expectation of the officials. 

They never came. Finally, at about 5:15 PM they all showed up in a boat, and cheerfully cleared us into Panama--they were particularly cheerful because they charged us overtime and therefore had a nice bonus for the weekend. I later made them feel bad for ripping us off, but it seems that is part of ordinary routine in Bocas.

With our wallets somewhat lighter, we soon learned that dollars were readily available from ATM machines in Bocas, and the town was swarming with international backpackers and surfers. With our rip-off introduction we didn't feel too happy about Panama, but things were to change as we explored areas around Bocas and we voyaged on to Colon and eventually the San Blas Islands.

Florida to the Caribbean

We spent most of the winter in Florida doing all the stuff you have to do to an almost 30-year old boat to get it ready for cruising.

We added solar panels, revamped the electrical system, installed a new roller furler, replaced rigging, got a storm jib, added a water catchment system (works great!), and tweaked a million little stowage issues.

That last item is very important before you head offshore. Dishes have to be wedged in so they don't rattle, cans stowed so they don't roll, bottles stored so they won't break, spare parts stowed so they are out of the way but you can find them when needed. It takes a lot of time and effort, but it is a never ending task. Each offshore voyage indicates new flaws in your system, but gradually you get things so you can leave harbor with a few moments spent on final stowage.

The final gear problem was our self-steering system. Our old autopilot was perpetually failing so we bit the bullet and installed an Auto-Helm windvane steering unit. Once that was in place we felt we could at least have self steering when under sail, though I also purchased a small tillerpilot that could be hooked to the windvane for steering under power--at least that was the theory.

We left Marathon, Florida, had a nice sail across the Gulf Stream to near Cuba in a light northeast wind, passed through the Yucatan Channel, then began a long slog across the Gulf of Honduras in flukey southeast winds with a strong adverse current. Conditions were exactly like the pilot charts predicted, but the reality of beating into a hot, humid wind and current, day after sweaty day, was tough. 

Finally, we decided to stop at remote Swan Island, which provided a couple of days of respite from the relentless headwinds. We met one other sailor there, a singlehander, and we were the only two boats to visit in a month. It is nice to know there are still places so remote in the Caribbean.

On to Providencia Island we motored, in light winds and seas. Providencia is part of Colombia. It has 1200-foot high peaks that loom over a beautiful and protected anchorage. The people are friendly and the port captain welcoming. We finally felt like we had arrived in a Caribbean paradise.

ICW Moments

The ICW is 1,090 miles of toll-free canal, stretching between Norfolk, Viriginia, and Miami, Florida. In reality, most of it was created by linking streams, bays, creeks, and sounds, so most of the Waterway has a very natural, unspoiled feel. To find out a lot more about the Waterway, check out our Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk to Miami.

There are great contrasts along the way: the busy shipping ports of Charleston and Norfolk, the total isolation of salt marsh anchorages in Georgia, condo canyons in south Florida, and Spanish moss-lined streets in Beaufort, South Carolina. We love it all.

Some of the highlights for us include the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, NC, the wild horses on the beach at Beaufort, the old market in Charleston, the peaceful park and streets of Beaufort, SC, the quiet anchorages up winding creeks in Georgia, the amazing Cumberland Island National Seashore, crashing surf on the ocean side of the Peck Lake anchorage north of Jupiter, FL, and searching for alligators along the banks of the Okeechobee Waterway (off the main ICW route).

Some years, we've had warm weather all the way south and we sweltered. Other years we were wearing ski hats and scraping frost in North Carolina. The 2005 trip was middle of the road in terms of weather--we had a little bit of everything. Maybe its our pilot house on Minke, our Finnsailer 38, but the weather didn't bother us, and we were very comfortable most of the way south. Also, Minke, with her powerful engine, can smash her way through almost anything the ICW can throw at us, so we never lost a day due to weather.

We were soon dropping the hook at St. Augustine, in northern Florida, and we lucked into the lighting of the town's Christmas lights, which is dramatic. We later watched the Christmas boat parade at Palm Beach, and the tiny, but equally fun, boat parade at LaBelle, on the Okeechobee Waterway. We tied up Minke behind a private home off the Okeechobee and left her for an extended visit back to Saratoga for Christmas.

Continuing South...

After the Annapolis Boat Show, with the nip of winter on the horizon, we began to head south as swiftly as possible. But, like all well-laid boating plans, the weather determined that we were to spend the rest of October in the Chesapeake.

Hurricane Wilma first whacked Florida, then began meandering up the East Coast towards Cape Hatteras. The Graveyard of the Atlantic is no place to be with a hurricane around, even if you're inside the ICW, so we stayed near Fairport, Viriginia, safely tied to a quiet little dock, up a quiet little creek, not very close to several quiet little towns.

Only the Chesapeake and Maine have such a wonderful variety of snug little spots like this, and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay, visiting old friends and working on various boat projects. One of the biggies was replacing all the rubber hoses on our nearly 30-year-old Perkins engine. That required lots of engine dismantling, but we were headed into the ICW and we would be under power a lot. We were later very thankful that our engine was in top shape while others were experiencing problems on the Waterway.

Finally, Wilma cleared out and we had a cool, but uneventful trip down to Norfolk. The Dismal Swamp Canal beckoned, and we once again enjoyed traveling this antique canal, originally surveyed by George Washington. The lock tender at Great Bridge serenaded us with his conch shell horn, and we were soon watching our masthead so it didn't hit the overhanging trees. At the North Carolina welcome center we were rafted five deep at the dock.

The other snowbird crews helped us pull 280 feet of chain out onto the dock so I could mark it off with wire ties--that is something worth doing when you're in a quiet spot. The trip on to Elizabeth City went quickly and we were just in time to go trick-or-treating at Halloween. As they have done for many years, Elizabeth City's very friendly citizens gave us a wonderful welcome complete with fresh roses, a wine and cheese party, and lots of warm handshakes. And, that welcome was not just for us, but for every visiting cruiser who passed through--amazing! Elizabeth City takes the prize for the best welcome on the Waterway.

Testing a Bulwagga Anchor

We tried to purchase a Spade anchor before we left, but there was an eight-week wait for the size we needed. We then checked into the Rocna anchor, which looks a lot like the Spade, and there was also a wait. So, I decided to try a Bulwagga anchor, which is made in upstate New York, near our home town of Saratoga.

The Bulwagga looks like a grappling hook with blades instead of prongs. No matter how it falls, at least two of the sharp blades penetrate the bottom quickly. We first tried it in Cuttyhunk Pond, Massachusetts. The bottom there is very weedy and notorious for not holding well, but the Bulwagga bit right in.

However, the first real test was in the cold front that swept through Block Island. As frequently seems to happen, the frontal passage was at night, so we experienced the sudden shift from westerly winds to northwest and then northeast in the pitch black. Several boats dragged away in gusts up around 30 knots, but the Bulwagga held and held well. No problems so far.

We then swung around and around our Bulwagga for several weeks in the soupy mud of Spa Creek in Annapolis. No problem.

ICW anchorages tend to have sticky mud, so they aren't much of a test of anchoring, but we did encounter one little problem in Georgia. We were anchored just south of Thunderbolt in the Herb River. Overnight the current switched several times and in the morning our Bulwagga came up fouled by the anchor chain that had wedged under one of the blades. However, the anchor had held us despite being fouled.

So far, in more than a year of almost continuous cruising, that is the only time we've had a problem with the Bulwagga. Subsequently, I usually use a second anchor in a Bahamian moor if I'm worried about reversing winds or currents. The Bulwagga has held us in winds up to 56 knots or so, in areas where other boats with other anchors have dragged.

I don't find the anchor hard to handle as we just leave it on the roller. I have to adjust its position a bit to get it to seat snugly on the roller, but that's about the extent of any hassle. You do have to be careful not to get your fingers pinched when manhandling the anchor as there are moving parts.

I like the Bulwagga, and most importantly it has held our boat safe and sound.

Sailing South

We're now enjoying Cartagena, Colombia, after several months of cruising in Panama. Our current trip began in September 2005. Our new, to us, Finnsailer 38 motorsailer was launched at the beginning of September. 

We sailed to Westport, Massachusetts, stocked up the boat, sold our cars, and headed south after working at the Newport boat show. The first leg was a motorslog to Block Island against wind and a nasty chop. I've never been a great fan of Block in the summer--too crowded and no room to anchor safely. But, in the fall it is much more laid back and we enjoyed a brief visit.

A typical fall cold front whistled through and provided us with strong (single reef) winds that sped us southward to Cape May, New Jersey. Offshore we had an odd argument with a cruise ship that insisted we should be showing a red over green masthead light at night, which is only required on very large sailboats.

The weather turned to the south at Cape May so we raced up Delaware Bay in time to catch a favorable tide through the C&D Canal, which allowed us to anchor in the head of Chesapeake Bay just after dark. Then another front came through and we had a wonderful swift sail down to Annapolis. We've never had such a fast and easy trip to Annapolis--basically four days from Block Island.

I worked the Annapolis boat show for Ocean Navigator, while the rain tried to sink our dinghy--day after wet day. We thought we'd never use our full canvas cockpit enclosure, but we sure enjoyed having it with all the rain and cold. In fact, we've found that we can roll up the sides, leaving the upper canvas to protect us from the sun here in the tropics. It is a bit of a pain as the main sheet comes down into the cockpit and therefore we have to tack the canvas if we tack the main, but we still love having that sun protection.