7 Budget Lessons

7 Budget Lessons

How much does it cost to go cruising? How about asking what questions you need to ask to figure out what YOU will need to go cruising? Here are 7 lessons we learned about budgeting that make us confident we’re on the right track for the next cruise!

What Kind of Dinghy Should I Get?

Our dinghy was the first boat we had together, or at least we had all the  parts of the dinghy as our first boat.

When we graduated from college and drove across the country to Texas from Virginia, we had hours to discuss our plans. We’d already decided we were going cruising, and the moving truck we’d rented had all of our college furniture inside it. That we had found some of that furniture on the curb where someone else was throwing it out didn’t matter one bit – we were just going to deal with it for another couple of years. Why buy new?

Part of the conversation was about the dinghy.

When you’re cruising, your dinghy is kind of like your car. Scratch the “kind of” – it IS your car, unless you’re planning on marina hopping all over. You anchor the boat somewhere, then get in the dink to get you to shore, or to a neighbor’s boat for sundowners, or to find the cool river to explore. It’s what takes you and snorkel gear to nearby reefs, and helps you maneuver in tight spots. We’ve used it to scout anchorage entrances, armed with a boat pole to check depths. (Side note – some people use awesome handheld depth sounders*. This sounds like an excellent birthday or Christmas present.)

This might be on my wish list.

This might be on my wish list.

But the question about what kind of dinghy is about as fraught with “IT DEPENDS” as the big boat question. And, like much of the cruising lifestyle, there is not one right answer.

We moved to Houston and in with Jeremy’s parents until we could find our own apartment. Jeremy’s job had wanted him to start even before graduation, which wasn’t happening, so our available time to housing-hunt was non-existent. We arrived on a Saturday, unloaded the van into the garage on Sunday, and Jeremy was off to the office on Monday. It took weeks of driving around (this was before the Internet) and calling to finally find the perfect spot, which had a spare room.

The dinghy room.

Jeremy had his heart set on building a dinghy. He’d ordered plans from WoodenBoat Magazine for a 7.5’ long dinghy and talked about the craftsmanship he’d employ. He loves working with his hands and building things, and this felt like a way to really focus the boat-owning experience if it took a long time to find the boat we wanted. 

Heck with finding the boat, which was ours within 9 months. It took a long time to finish the dinghy. So long, in fact, that he put the finishing touches on it (permanently installing the bench) in Naples, Florida, about 3 months after we’d shoved off the dock from Kemah. Putting the last planks in was a matter of rushing to complete it before our apartment lease ended; it needed to be stable enough to move to another storage spot.

Dinghy #1: A wooden dinghy. These are fabulous and tough, beautiful to look at gorgeous to row. You can fit a sailing rig to it, and even a small outboard motor. They’re traditional, relatively stable, and simple. If you’re going to use it for snorkeling a lot, you will want to figure out a ladder system so you can actually get yourself out of the water, but this is a challenge even on an inflatable. 

See both dinghies?

See both dinghies?

When we got to Grenada, we were a little tired of the wet, slow ride our gorgeous dinghy afforded us with its appropriately-sized 2 horse engine. We’d pulled out the sailing rig exactly twice. We hate rowing. These are good things to learn about us and how we work. Time to investigate the idea of an inflatable.

Inflatable awesomeness.

Inflatable awesomeness.

Inflatables come in a number of flavors, most of which have to do with the floor you choose. You could choose just a flexible floor (think a pool toy raft kind of floor), but I don’t recommend this option for active cruising. You’ll be carrying trash to shore, water and groceries and laundry  to the boat, and schlepping people around. Choose a floor. You’ll be happier.

There are rollup floors, with slats of different materials. There are inflatable floors, or air floors. There are solid floors, called Rigid Inflatable Boats, or RIBs – which basically pair a solid floor and keel with buoyant tubes. You’re looking at a compromise of price, weight, convenience, and size.

We’d heard that Trinidad had great prices on engines, and that the place to buy a dinghy was Venezuela. Since we were loosely planning to go to both of those countries, operation buy-a-dink was set into high motion.

You’d think, with a 28’ boat, that we’d be looking at small, light, and stowable for our inflatable. A small Zodiac, maybe, or an Avon roll-up. 

No. We chose the biggest dinghy, with the biggest engine, we could conceive of. I don’t know if back then there were dinghies with consoles, but in any case that felt insane even to us. We decided on a RIB, either 9 or 10 feet long, that we’d buy in Venezuela, where Caribe and AB both had dealers or manufacturers – the details are a bit fuzzy. And for either of those dinks, a 15 horse motor is absolutely the right size.

Why a RIB? Jeremy had horror stories about Avons that didn’t hold air, and a Zodiac that was a nightmare to pump up every time they wanted to use it. We wanted a dinghy that was ready to go always, no pumping required. And the wet rides in Soca, the wooden boat, made us long for a planning hull. A RIB it was.

We bought the motor in Trinidad a good 6 weeks before we headed across to Venezuela, building a custom bracket for it to sit when we were on passage. 

There's our 15 HP motor, on its bracket. How I love this engine.

There's our 15 HP motor, on its bracket. How I love this engine.

The engine for the boat? A 10 horse, single-cylinder, hand-crank Sabb. The dinghy, weighing just about 100 pounds, would have more power than our 14,000 pound boat. Ah the irony.

And when we got to Venezuela, sniffing out chandleries in Isla Margarita where other cruisers had told us they’d bought their dinks, it didn’t take long or much justification to go with an AB (we liked the interior volume and the bow locker) that maxed out our size range. We’d have kids eventually, we reasoned. Go big or go home. What’s an extra foot? The cost difference was negligible, the weight difference also tiny. Toby, the beagle, would love the space.

We looked very funny for the next year or so as we towed around 2 dinghies. Coming up the ICW to the Chesapeake Bay, a trip that’s marked with more motoring than sailing, we got in the habit of hauling the dinghies out on either side, looking for all the world like a weird trimaran. We got used to the cracks about the dinghy being larger than the boat.

We were a 2-dink family

We were a 2-dink family

There were issues. Stowing the big dinghy, which we call Chutney, is a pain. It fits on the foredeck barely, rendering the windlass and the staysail unusable, so last minute lashing happens after the anchor is up, and coming into an anchorage means dealing with the dink until we can get it all done. And not having the staysail, for a boat designed to sail her best with the use of one, is just not sustainable.

So now, 25 years after we first bought the boat, 22 years after we brought our first dinghy on board, we are back in the conversation about what dinghy to have. Our plans include crossing oceans. We need to access the windlass. The staysail is an important part of our sailing world. As much as we LOVE Chutney, the bigger-than-life RIB we bought in Venezuela, a country that currently sits on our personal “off limits” list? It’s too big. 

So we’re measuring. Thinking. Asking lots of questions at boat shows. 

Here's the thing with dinghies, and it's like a lot of other boat conversations. 1) There's not one perfect answer for anyone. We started out wanting a wooden one, to show off skills and have it fit with the look of the boat. We shifted to wanting as large a dink, with as big a motor, as we could figure out how to use. And now we're onto the idea that the dinghy needs to stow well in a certain area (under the boom), be light enough to deal with effectively, and doesn't need to be huge.

As our lives have changed, so have our requirements for a dinghy. Don't think you're stuck forever with whatever you decide to get now. Flexibility is important for so many things in this wonderful boating world of ours.

Meanwhile, we’ve got 2 dinghies for sale. A wooden gorgeous one, and a 10.5’ RIB. Anyone want one?

Cruising Venezuela, with 2 dinghies

Cruising Venezuela, with 2 dinghies

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Overbuilt Boats - a Project Update!

Jeremy turned off the oscillating cutting tool* and the Shop Vac and looked at me. "There isn't tabbing on the underside too, is there?" I could hear him, barely, over the toilet paper we'd both stuffed into our ears as the best ear protection we could muster on a weekend we thought we'd only be working on the outside of the boat.

I nodded. "Unfortunately."

Yes, the shelf that needed to come out as the next step in PROJECT MAIN SALON BUNK was tabbed with multiple layers of fiberglass not only on the top, but also on the bottom. Half inch plywood sandwiched between layers of fiberglass that was close to 1/8 of an inch thick. ON BOTH SIDES. Sheesh.

Lovely, sturdy, and facing demolition.

Lovely, sturdy, and facing demolition.

The BCC has the reputation of being built like a tank. Lin and Larry Pardey talk about boats being priced by the pound, like a good steak, and this one must be a freaking filet mignon.

(Lest you get any ideas, let me tell you we bought the boat in 1992, from the 2nd owner, and it was NOT priced like a filet mignon. If we’d bought a new one, from the factory, it would have been. This one . . . luckily for us, it was more like hamburger. Good grade burger meat, but burger meat nonetheless.)

Burger meat, made into meatballs.

Burger meat, made into meatballs.

The Sam L Morse yard was one where standards were high and the finish quality was superb. Ours was finished off by a yard in San Diego, I believe – Bill Clark Custom Yachts, if I am remembering right – and I’d have to imagine the finish quality was on par with Sam Morse.

Unless it’s common to tab in a shelf with multiple layers of fiberglass tape and roving on BOTH SIDES? Maybe it is.

But damn we need to buy stock in an oscillating cutting tool company, or at least the blades. Cutting through fiberglass is hard work!

When the original owners had the boat finished off, at least as much as they did that anyway, they probably had no idea anyone would ever rip out the work they put time and money into. They felt that way, I am sure, about the gorgeously finished, mahogany sided cabinet for the stainless steel lobster pot that served as the boat’s first head. 

When we bought her, mast in a yard somewhere else. I didn't take a pic of the head.

When we bought her, mast in a yard somewhere else. I didn't take a pic of the head.

The first of many admiring curse words were flung at the builder at that demolition project, I can tell you.

And we’re right back at it as we tear out the port side shelf, once the proud base for our single sideband radio and bookshelf as well as kids’ clothing, games, and a whole bunch of spare batteries.

An earlier version of work on this space. Note the games, radio, and various amounts of STUFF.

An earlier version of work on this space. Note the games, radio, and various amounts of STUFF.

I’m not advocating going cheap or easy when you’re constructing any part of a boat. After all, even a lowly bookshelf has to be able to withstand forces and twisting we can only calculate if we’re mathematically (and doomsday) inclined. But it may be worth remembering, as you zealously craft perfection, that someday it's possible you’ll want to tear out whatever it is you are building.

Blank slate, ready for the next iteration.

Blank slate, ready for the next iteration.

Or maybe it’s just better to buy stock in those tools you’ll need to destroy your work now.

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How to Talk Like a Cruiser

When I was in high school, long before I started sailing for real, a friend of mine asked me to proofread an essay she wrote. She’s a sailor; the essay was a lovely, personal memoir-type essay about her family and their boat. I made a few corrections and handed it back to her with the comment, “You may want to change the language to make it accessible to anyone.”



She disagreed. “It’s an essay about sailing; the intended audience is someone who sails. They’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.”

It may well have been my first real lesson in the power of audience and writing for your audience, though I’d been practicing it for years. It also brought to mind, quickly, the nuances of vocabulary.

Any lifestyle, like any geographic location,  has its own special vocabulary, and it goes a long way to helping you fit in when you can speak the lingo.

There’s insider speak on the internet. LOL. (laugh out loud) TLDR (too long; don’t read). ISO (I seek other) and IKR (I know, right?) and BRB (be right back). On Women Who Sail, the constant questions around “So what IS DH anyway?” (dear hubby, deck hand, dick head – multiple meanings depending on the context) are a reminder that it’s helpful to have a guide to the language.

Boating is, of course, no exception to the “let’s create our own language” phenomenon. There are standard boat terms, all of which help with communication from a safety standpoint. When you understand that bow and stern and port and starboard are ALWAYS in relation to the boat, not where you happen to be standing,  yelling out “hazard to port” saves confusion and time. Boat parts and their names are often one of the first things taught in a sailing school for good reason.

But what about the rest of the words? What about going cruising and wanting to fit in? What about when you’ve bought a boat and are on your own, bringing her into a marina for the first time? What special vocabulary might you want to know so you understand? You already know port and starboard, and hopefully you’re at least partially acquainted with the engine and how it works. Here are a few more.

For cruising:

Sundowner: a special drink (alcoholic or not) at sundown. When you’re invited for sundowners, it means you’ve been invited to hang in the cockpit chatting while the sun goes down, an event everyone watches. Take your own drinks and a nibble to share.

Sometimes sundowners involve a beach fire.

Sometimes sundowners involve a beach fire.

Provisioning: stocking up on whatever you need for food, drink, and various other items on the boat. It’s like grocery shopping  for the boat.

Dinghy dock: special spot to leave your dinghy when you go ashore.

Reading the mail: listening to other conversations on the VHF. Everyone does it. Don’t think any conversation on the VHF is private, even if you’ve got your “secret” channel.

Weather window: a period of time when the weather appears to be favorable for a passage you want to make. You can help yourself find one by using FastSeas, a weather routing site designed by my husband, Jeremy. And in any case, this book* is great to have on hand to learn about tactics to use when a window slams shut unexpectedly. 

If you need this book, you probably didn't pick a good window.

If you need this book, you probably didn't pick a good window.

Cruiser’s Midnight: 9 pm. 

The Net: local vhf radio call-in at a set time, usually in the morning. Organization varies depending on location, but generally includes some weather, general announcements, and a time for new boats to introduce themselves. If there is one, it’s a great source of information especially if you are new to the area.

And, to honor my friend and her high school essay, I wanted to include a couple of marina scenarios. If you don’t know the lingo, these questions/statements could totally throw you for a loop.

Marina: What do you draw?

Answer: “Draw” means “how much water do you need to float.” This matters not only for where they put you, but also because sometimes the way in to a marina has restricted depths. It’s a good idea to ask about the APPROACH depths too.

Marina: What's your beam?

Answer: This is how wide the boat is. It matters because they’ll put you (hopefully) into a slip that you fit without the need of grease or a shoehorn.

Marina: Okay! You have slip B-12. Starboard tie.

Translation: Slip? The dock space you’ve been assigned to. “Starboard tie” means you’ll be tying up on the starboard side – IF you are going bow in.  If you prefer going stern in, then you’ll be tying on the port side. Get your lines ready and fenders out. 

Calypso in her slip.

Calypso in her slip.

Obviously, these aren’t the only special words you need to learn. But it’s a good start.

(and the word I wanted my friend to explain? Slip. If she had explained it, it would totally have ruined a wonderful essay. Vocabulary and audience – they both matter!)

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Long Hair or Short Hair?

Someone said to me today, "Oh! Your hair is so long."

It is, sort of.

Compared to where it was years ago, it's not all that long. 

Years ago, my hair was long.

Years ago, my hair was long.

What does the length of my hair have to do with going cruising, anyway? Make it whatever length you want, right?

And do guys EVER worry about this stuff?

There are pros and cons to whatever length you choose, of course. Aren't there pros and cons to any single decision you make in your life, like ever?

Here's what I like about long hair.

This was yesterday, right?

This was yesterday, right?

  1. I can pull it back into a pony tail, or braid it. Instant "out of face" decision.
  2. If I go for a few days without a shower, and I pull it back in a ponytail or braid it, nobody is really the wiser unless they look too closely at it.
  3. It's easy to not really care about a hair cut - chop inches off or not. No need to find a decent hairdresser wherever I am.
  4. It's easy to make it look fancy. Sometimes "making it look fancy" means I have showered, washed my hair, and brushed it. 
  5. I still like to chew on my hair when I'm nervous. Sorry for the TMI.
  6. Wearing my hair down is an instant way to spice up date night, or sundowner night, or turn any evening into a special occasion. Given budgetary constraints, this is a cheap way to make an impression.
  7. There's no conversation about what to do with it at workout time. Ponytail it is!
  8. Earrings twinkle like surprises when they're in long hair.
  9. A baseball cap is an easy hat to wear - it serves as ponytail holder and sun visor all in one. I like multitasking things on a boat.
  10. My hair LOVES humidity - so long hair looks wavy and full and fun.
  11. Jeremy likes me with long hair. 

And here's what I like about short hair:

Short hair!

Short hair!

  1. It is so easy to take care of.
  2. Save money on shampoo, and no need for conditioner.
  3. It dries in about 3 minutes flat.
  4. I can wear dangly earrings, or plain ones, or little tiny ones. They don't get lost in my hair.
  5. The amount of hair I shed is comparatively less.
  6. Come on - sassy and cute. Do I really need to say more?
  7. No need for a ponytail or scrunchy. Just wash and go!
  8. Easy water use.
  9. I think it makes me look younger. We can debate whether this is a good thing or not at another time.

The thing with long hair is that it's, well, long. There's more of it to shed, more of it to wash, more of it to feel scrungy and gross. It's easier from a few practical angles on a boat (mostly the "tie it back and forget it" angle, and also much less of a need for regular haircuts to keep it looking good).

I love my hair short. Jeremy likes it better long. I think, for practical purposes on the boat, unless I can get him to learn how to cut my hair well, I will need to go with long hair.

Wanna chime in?  

Boating Friendships

A friend sent me a message on Facebook this past weekend, a picture of her and her husband holding a copy of the Caribbean Compass with a press release about the podcast, my picture prominently above the fold. They were on their boat, in Trinidad.

Janie and Autie! 

Janie and Autie! 

We’ve known them since the early 1990s, when we each lived on our respective boats at Portofino Harbour in Kemah, Texas. We shared numerous dinners, hosted potlucks in the marina clubhouse together, and shed tears when we headed off on our first cruise, leaving them behind. They came to our rescue when our beagle broke into the fridge the day after I’d gone grocery shopping and consumed (no joke) 2 pounds of cheese, a pound of chicken breasts, a pound of butter, a quart of milk, and a pint of half-and-half. He needed a few walks during the day the next day, as you might imagine, and we worked more than 75 miles away. Our friendship started in real life (actually, it started before the internet was even a thing) and has continued with the help of social media; we’re looking forward to sharing an anchorage when we get out there again.

Toby would eat ANYTHING. This is bok choy, after a market run in Trinidad.

Toby would eat ANYTHING. This is bok choy, after a market run in Trinidad.

This picture, after making me grin and shout and share it with Jeremy, made me think about cruising, and boating friendships. Is it that boating makes friendships easier, or more lasting? Is it somehow the mentality that allows someone to want to live with all the challenges and joys of life on a small boat (they’re all small. All of them) means they’ll be better friends? Or is it that we’ve just been plain lucky?

I sit here and think of the many cruising friends we’ve got. There are Lee and Sharon, who passed us our very first morning out on the Gulf ICW in 1993, helped us beach our dinghy in the Exumas with the words, “do you remember us?”, shared a memorable carnival in Trinidad in 1995, and gave me a hug last October at the Annapolis Boat Show when they came by the booth I was helping staff. I had not seen them in more than 20 years. They knew me instantly, and we chatted as if we just saw each other the day before.

Lee and Sharon!

Lee and Sharon!

There are memories tied in with the kids too, with people who we shared anchorages with when our only other crew was that same eat-anything beagle named Toby, and then again 10 years later when we had 2 kids in tow.  Eileen and David, and Jane and Dudley, appeared totally unexpectedly in Solomon’s in 2002, when we were headed north for a Lyle Hess reunion. We’d last seen them in Venezuela in the mid-90s. Eileen and David are Canadian; Jane and Dudley live in Maryland.

Knock knock, Merhaba Merhaba Calypso. Dudley poked his head out and his whole face lit up.


And Little Gidding’s Eileen, when we knocked on that hull, promptly invited us inside, enthralling 3-year-old Julian by singing Anchoring Dance in their mola-decorated main cabin with him chiming in. He’s 18 now, and still remembers that moment.

Lyle Hess rendezvous 2002

Lyle Hess rendezvous 2002

There are Rod and Lenora, friends we met in Houston as they were working on their Flicka, detailing fiberglass work to perfection with dental tools; the friendship has continued through their owning of a sister ship to Calypso and a move to Baltimore, and now as they prepare to retire, boatless, to North Carolina to be near grandchildren. Facebook messages and email allow us to keep in touch with them in ways we’d never have done before, though the memories are kept alive as photos resurface.


The internet has made friendships both more possible as well as easier to cement. There’s Wendy and Johnny, with their kids Kaeo and Bird, who passed us on the ICW in Florida in 2009, their kids and ours hanging in the rigging as they realized “There are kids on that boat!” A chance encounter that would have faded into memory if not for the power of email and the internet, with a little luck thrown in to boot – instead, we’re fast friends to this day, talking at least once a week and planning weekends together.

Wine tasting, anyone?

Wine tasting, anyone?

We got to cruise in Panama for a week because of Facebook, and the friendship we struck up with Behan and Jamie on Totem. Meeting face-to-face happened because we already “knew” each other; the bond we’d forged over many morning messages has been made far more solid because we can trade hugs when we see each other for real.


I podcast because of Carolyn Shearlock, a woman I knew from myth and legend and Women Who Sail; we met in person just about 6 months ago, and neither one of us could really fathom that it was the first time we’d actually laid eyes on each other.


Sometimes I think cruising forges fast friendships in part because of how fleeting the time together can be. When you are aware, always, that one or both of you will be moving on, the superficial dances around who you really are as people become less important. Time’s a wastin’ – gotta get to know you now, fast. Maybe we’ll fall in love. Maybe we won’t. But we don’t have all day to try to figure it out. This holds true even if you happen to be in between cruises, or if you’ve swallowed the hook for “good.” I feel like we hone in on the real stuff. How do you treat your friends? How do you treat the environment? Are you a decent human being? How old you are, what size boat you have, what your budget is – those things don’t matter.

When I meet you, will we be fast friends?

Can’t wait to find out.





Looking Back to Look Ahead

There are times when it's fun to read old blogs, to see what the me-of-then was thinking. This one struck a chord with me - recognize any themes? This is a post from our SVCalypso blog, from the 2009-2010 cruise we took with the kids. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

Shiny winch.

Shiny winch.

August 26, 2009

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days, and the concept gelled this morning as I shed some tears over my friend Lee's blog (last cruising entry for a while).  Her final lines are “We recommend to everyone that they take time now to fulfill that dream or vision.  There is no other time, only the present.”  Lee and her husband, Chris, took off a year ago and went to the Exumas and back, up to Martha’s Vineyard and back to Deltaville.  Reading their blog is a lesson in being PRESENT – a lesson I know I would do well to heed.

Kids, 3rd and 5th grades, first day of school.

Kids, 3rd and 5th grades, first day of school.

And that’s where I am struggling right now.  I have the hardest time being present to all that is happening.  Part of is the feeling that I have feet in a couple of different worlds, part of it is wanting time to hurry up and go by.  Part of it is, quite probably, a mourning for the stability and comfort of the routine we have shed already – with more to come in the next week, even, as I put in my final day at work on Monday.  And with that mourning is a frustration with myself – I am choosing this (we are choosing this) – why be sad about the choice?

Our transition began in the summer, really, when we moved out of our newly-renovated, much beloved house so the renters could come in with their boxes and different chaos.  We are now living in a one-bedroom apartment, all four of us, which I joke (semi-seriously) about being bigger than the boat. (It is, square footage-wise.)  The kids had to pack up their toys and books, and all they could bring with them (other than clothes) had to fit in a small plastic box*.  They are being remarkably resilient and accepting, except that Julian cannot kick a cold and Maddie is now grinding her teeth at night.  Hard, hard, hard to share with them (convince them? help them understand?) WHY it is so imperative that we do this cruising thing NOW.

School started for the kids yesterday.  They are in new classrooms, with new teachers and new friends.  But they know (as do their teachers and classmates) that they will only be there for 5 weeks.  Strange situation.  Possibly for them the hardest part (or the hardest part they can verbalize) is not riding the school bus.

I am frantically finishing up things at work (I have been the Admissions Director at a local private school for the past 5 years, and my job culminates on Monday with the orientation of the new kids the day before school starts), feeling like a bit of a ghost.  My colleagues are wonderful and supportive, but they (obviously) are caught up in the excitement of a new year while I am not involved at all with those details.

Jeremy’s replacement starts on Monday, for close to a month of overlap.  He is working hard as ever at work, trying to leave procedures and lists in place for his team – and then coming home to work on boat projects or research boat parts.

And through it all I am wondering how the reentry will be.  Lee’s blog has reminded me of my one real regret from last time – that I was too busy looking at what was coming next to appreciate where we were. (In reading the old journal from that trip, I can read 4 separate, distinct times when I wrote, “Now the cruising can really begin.”  What cruising did I miss while waiting for it to “start?”)

Stop, Nica.  Concentrate on the NOW.  Even as chaotic as it seems, it is what is going on.  If I look too far in the future I may well miss the present.

Pizza on the boat grill.

Pizza on the boat grill.

So bring it back to the present.  Yesterday was the first day of school for the kids, and they looked great (and all too tall) as I scrambled them into the car for the drive to school.  Today we made pizza on the grill for dinner – not all that exciting (for us) except that we did it on the boat grill and it WORKED!!! (We had been worried that it would burn before cooking properly)  Kids are in bed now, reading, and Jeremy and I are playing dueling computers working on different boat projects.  (This blog must count as a boat project, yes?)

There you go.  Rantings and philosophical wanderings and perhaps some self-centered whining from me.  Ah well.  At least I ate well tonight.

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The Glories of One Inch!

We’re in the process of moving our double bunk from the forepeak, where it’s been since we “finalized” the interior in 1993. The initial thought around not putting it in the main salon was that I wanted to have a bunk I didn’t have to make up every night.



That space, as you can see in the video, is also where the head is. Where the main tool storage is. Where the extra food is stored. Every single night I had to make up the bunk, reworking sheets and blankets. For a “that bed must look gorgeous before I get into it every night” person like me, this was not what I had thought would be the case.


The “factory finished” Bristol Channel Cutters have this ingenious pull out pilot berth on the port side. By day it masquerades as the back to the settee, a book-less bookshelf, if you will. By night, it slides out to form a comfortable double bunk. Call it a Murphy bed for the vertically challenged.

This is the "closed" bunk on a friend's boat. Clearly in project mode himself!

This is the "closed" bunk on a friend's boat. Clearly in project mode himself!

Our boat, hull number 6, was built before the yard was even offering finished interiors. The original owners (we are owner #3) had it taken to San Diego from Costa Mesa to get her ready to sail; the man we bought her from had never really gotten around to doing the rest of it (other than removing the diesel stove). In 1992, we had basically a clean slate to work with, and putting a v-berth in was high on the priority list. That the head would be under the insert for the bunk was not a great worry; who needs to use the head in the middle of the night?

Calypso, as we bought her. Clean slate interior!

Calypso, as we bought her. Clean slate interior!

Ahem, that would be the almost 50 year old me, with her almost 50 year old bladder. No judging.


Between that and wanting any visitor to have more head privacy, plus the desire to have a place to shower down below, plus knowing that we’re cruising as a couple this time around (no kids), plus the realization that actually, Lyle Hess (the designer) knew what the heck he was doing when he figured out how the accommodations would work on this boat . . . we’re changing the interior to more closely mirror the factory finish, and we are so excited about it!


There are a couple of big things we won’t change. Our galley is to starboard, not port, without the oh-so-smart aspect of the sink bumped out more toward the centerline (for easier drainage!). Our floorboards are about 2 inches higher than on the yard-done boats, giving more room for larger water tanks but minimizing headroom for Jeremy.


The work on the bunk has begun in earnest as of this past weekend, when we had a chance to really sit and look and scheme and measure. Boat geometry is complicated in any case; it feels more complicated with a small boat.

demolition is the first step

demolition is the first step

We need to make the bunk as wide as it can be when it’s pulled out. Allow for as much head room on the outboard (under the side deck) side as possible. Make sure the backrest of the settee isn’t too low for comfort. Ensure that someone sitting on the settee to eat can do so without having to crunch his knees. And make sure there’s bulkhead room for lounging with your back to the bulkhead. All this while making sure the pullout section is supported. That’s a lot of different things to think about in one small space.


We’ll mock it up a few different ways before committing to anything, of course, but one thing that stood out as we were measuring and talking and trying things out. 

Blue tape? Where we could lower the backrest, to gain bunk width.

Blue tape? Where we could lower the backrest, to gain bunk width.

Inches matter.


Like literally, an inch will make a huge difference in comfort. It might mean between being able to sit up in bed or relax against the bulkhead – or not. It might mean the difference between a comfortable backrest while sitting or a contortionist’s nightmare while eating.

Can we find enough inches to make this tenable?

Can we find enough inches to make this tenable?


It’s incredible to be thinking in terms of inches. When so much of my life as a landlubber is consumed with more more more, when we talk about faster internet and acres of land and how much MORE can we have, there is something so satisfying in focusing on where to find one more inch of space.


It’s precision. Priorities. Looking and thinking outside of the box. Careful attention to detail. And a certainty that it can all work beautifully well together.

Very initial mockup.

Very initial mockup.


Where can you find your inches?

Southern Cross to starboard

Cruising is all about moments. There are the really nasty ones, the middle of the night wind shift and consequent move, or the scary almost-wreck-the-dinghy entrance into the anchorage near Dean's Blue Hole in the Bahamas. And there are the other ones, the ones we pull out when we try to describe this life.

As I think of the week we had on Totem, my mind fills with images. Sure, we’ve got a lot of pictures. Pictures of people, of landscapes, of sky and water and sails and ruins. I’ll share a bunch of those at the end of this post.

There are also flashes of our time inked in my head. The camera wasn’t out, or it doesn’t capture the scene, or maybe it was just enough to be in the moment and have it just for me.

Huge waves ahead and behind us as we steadily bashed our way from Linton east to the Guna Yala that first morning on a passage Jamie later told us ranked up there as one of the 10 worst they’ve had in their almost-completed circumnavigation. Totem handled it with aplomb. The crew of Calypso perched in the cockpit, smiled plastered on all of our faces. How many different moments is that?

Seeing the sail of a sailfish appear in front of us, then glide by on the starboard side like a weirdly pointed black plastic bag, on that same passage. Jamie said he’d never seen one.

Catching the glimpse of a pair of dolphins racing towards us then disappearing under the boat.

The Guna village on Isla Machina, with pole-perched solar panels at regular intervals along the narrow pathways that separated the thatch-roofed huts. Side panels of branches tied with twine. One little girl, another little one on her hip who was almost the same size as the one carrying her, peering at us and reappearing at corners. Walking through the huts with cross beams so low even I had to duck a few times. All the hammocks for sleeping, which made my back hurt just seeing them.

Christmas tree worms on the reef, and bright parrotfish pecking at coral.

The dinghy soldiering on under the weight of all 9 of us.

Bee, Mairen, and Siobhan putting away the bedding every morning, whooshing all the air out of the Thermarest* mattresses to turn the main salon back into a living room instead of a dormitory, then reversing the operation at night.

Seeing not one, not two, but three sea turtles on separate sails. Big ones, just hanging on the surface.

Watching the blue-purple sail of a Portuguese Man-O-War jellyfish float by on our last passage, from Portobello to Colon.

Waking up to pinpricks of rain hitting my face, rain that lasted about 5 minutes before scuttling away to reveal a sky bright with an endless carpet of stars.

Sitting in the cockpit in the morning while the coffee grounds settled in my owl mug, looking around at islands and water and sailboats and the sky. It seemed as if I were the only person awake in the world, though I knew that was not the case.

2 dolphins surfacing 10 feet from where I sat in the cockpit at anchor in Portobello.

And waking up at three in the morning and sticking my head out of the hatch, seeing the kite of the Southern Cross to starboard.

Capture your own moments of magic.

See you out there.

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Panama Recap, or - Flexibility is the Watchword!

Tide wash

Tide wash

"Cruising plans are best set in sand - changeable with the tides." "Cruisers and schedules don't mesh." "You can pick the time or the place, but not both."

Very very true. I think we've used these comments on would-be guests a few times, but it's the first time we've really dealt with that aspect of cruising reality from the point of view of the guest.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that our plans to go through the Panama Canal with the Totems had been stymied by a longer-than-usual processing time between measurement and transit (and a hard-learned lesson about who to buy airplane tickets from!). I thought I'd share what happened!

Instead of this: 

Totem's in the middle here

Totem's in the middle here

We had this:

Anchorage in the Guna Yala (San Blas Islands)

Anchorage in the Guna Yala (San Blas Islands)

Plan A was to go through the canal. No go.

Plan B was to change our plane tickets to be able to go through the canal. No go. (hint - look up prices on sites like Travelocity and Kayak. Actually BOOK the ticket through the airlines. If we had done that, it would have cost us $300 to change our plans. As it was, the full-price-plus-penalty change fee made changing the tickets not possible.)

Plan C was to drive to Carti, a small Guna village on the mainland about 10 miles from the offshore islands. You may know of them as the San Blas - the indigenous peoples there are the Guna Indians, and they prefer the nomenclature of Guna Yala. They actually administer the territory, though it's officially a part of Panama. No go. The Congreso, the Guna leadership, had decreed that all traffic to the area needed to be that destined for Guna resorts. The taxi companies we contacted were reluctant to risk their ability to take anyone, ever, through the border. This change happened literally 3 days before we were to fly out.

Map source:

Map source:

Plan D was to fly out to the islands. No go. Despite the assurances of many people that such flights exist, we were having trouble finding any. And when we did find someone willing to fly us, when we pressed the question of the Congreso regulations, the communication suddenly dried up.

Plan E was for Totem to head to Linton (just east of Portobelo, which you can see on the map), a town outside of Congreso jurisdiction about 45 miles WEST (downwind) of the Guna Yala, where taxis were happy to deliver us. Then we could either continue the jaunt to Colon (further downwind) or decide to bash back upwind to the islands.

The flurry of emails and messages in that last 2 days was astounding. Someone got through to Carti! Oh, no they didn't! They did, but the Congreso at the border was asking to see birth certificates and crew lists. They did, but the guys on the beach at Carti were charging $100 a head for the 5 minute boat ride out to the sailboat. Oh, they actually didn't get through at all. 

By this time, though (and some of these messages/rumors were shared as we were sitting in the airport in DC!), Totem was underway to Linton. Our taxi driver was getting us at the airport in Panama City and delivering us to Linton. We'd decide on the next 10 days over sundowners in Totem's cockpit that very night. Jeremy warned me (as I'd already figured out) that we may well decide NOT to head back upwind - who wants to beat to windward against strong trades if you don't have to?

Safe arrival in Panama City, then Linton. And after unearthing all the US goodies we'd brought to ease the shock of having 4 extra people on a 47 foot boat (maple syrup! Chocolate chips!), the decision was made. Guna Yala, here we come. So Sunday morning, after Behan and I walked to the nearby village of Isla Grande to see what fresh foods we could add to the Totem galley, we picked up the anchor and headed back into the trades, retracing that 45 mile trek they'd done the day before. Jamie says it was one of the 10 worst trips in their almost-finished circumnavigation.

Was it worth it? You tell me.

Boat Project Organization

Winter views

Winter views

It's still winter here in Central Virginia, though the blooming forsythia and the industrious robins helping themselves to bugs or worms or seeds in the backyard are working to convince us otherwise. The calendar and the lengthening days tell us that spring is on its way, and so is sailing season.

Or maybe it's closer to reality to say that "boat work season" is on its way. I'm not sure exactly how much sailing we will get in this summer and fall. Here's hoping we can sneak in a few gorgeous afternoons on the Bay!

Why no sailing? Simple. We have boat projects galore. We've got a few things that have to be done before we can set sail, and the discussion of how to organize said projects is ongoing. There is no right way to organize projects, but I will say that organizing them is really important. Pick a way that works for you and get moving!

One way is by "Things to buy". This is pretty concrete, though the list is deceptively simple. (And lest you think this is all there is, let me assure you it gets added to all the time.) There's no column for the associated projects. The solar panels, for example, involve hiring someone to do stainless work and stanchions and solid lifelines. The windlass doesn't mention the wiring, or the below-decks work, or the battery upgrades.

Screen Shot 2018-03-11 at 12.21.51 PM.png

Another way to organize projects is to think of the things that MUST be done before we leave. There's a bit of this inherent in the "CRITICALITY" column in the "things to buy" spreadsheet, although I'd argue that adding the windlass is way more important than the fish finder*, and personally I'm lobbying hard for the refrigerator to be a pretty high priority (okay, we COULD just use the ARB we have right now as the fridge if we don't have it installed before shoving off . . .). This list is limited to items that are required for safety and comfort: finishing the bed down below, and dealing with reefing gear for the mainsail. Seacocks, especially while the boat is out of the water, are also critical.

We need to get a bunk for us sorted.

We need to get a bunk for us sorted.

This list, though? It keeps being affected by project creep. While we are working on a new bunk for ourselves, we might as well deal with the chart table. And the galley. And the batteries. And cushions. And lighting. And the table will likely need to be modified. And oh, let's finish the hull "ceiling" please, so our home is pretty and cozy.

Project creep. Gotta learn to be diligent in avoiding it, or embrace it. If you've got ideas as to the former, please let me know!

Then there's the "brain dump" version of project lists. Can you tell who makes which list?

Two guesses as to whether this is my list or Jeremy's.

Two guesses as to whether this is my list or Jeremy's.


Sometimes it feels like project lists are a bit like loading a cannon. Put it all in there and light a fuse and hope for the best.

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Reentry - or, the Grief Stages are Real

Drinking a Presidente out of a mola coozie

Drinking a Presidente out of a mola coozie

Reentry after cruising can be really tough, even if the return to a world most people can relate to is a planned one. We did this after our first cruise, when we’d eked out an extra year of our post-college boondoggle of a honeymoon. Three years of cruising the Eastern Caribbean on Calypso, our 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter. I was more than ready to come back to “reality.” I longed for life with a car, with air conditioning, with a freezer.


The pace of life astounded me. How can people move that fast?


There are times when cruising comes to an end and it is planned. Expected. Longed-for, even. And there are times when cruising comes to an end and it’s planned and it’s crushing. (That there are also times when cruising comes to a crushingly unplanned end is a whole other conversation.) While it’s obvious that one is harder than the other, there are some unexpected basics around re-entry that are universal, at least in my experience.


Cruising is tough, there’s no doubt about it. The physical existence. The challenges around simple chores like shopping and laundry and even flushing the toilet. The space and lack of privacy and constant need for vigilance about things like weather and holding and neighbors.

These are all aspects that people “back home” just don’t get. Their understanding of cruising is one from movies and magazines, ones that involve beaches and hammocks or pirates and 50-story waves. No matter how long you’ve been out, their lives have continued in the same routine of soccer practice and traffic jams, waiting for the cable guy and worrying about how effective the tick repellant will be for the dog this year. They may mean well, and welcome you home with open arms, but their main questions will be about storms and pirates and sharks. They might ask how you stayed awake all night every night, or how you managed to feed the family since you were never on land (there is a misconception that going cruising means never setting foot on land, that somehow you just keep sailing the whole time). And then they lose interest.


When we returned from 10 months in the Bahamas, I figured it would be fine. This was, after all, our second re-entry, and this time we’d only been gone for a relatively short period of time. We were coming back to a familiar house, a familiar neighborhood, a familiar school for the kids. Unpack the bags, collect the pets, and life goes on, right?

I’d forgotten how fast life is on land. I’d forgotten how scheduled it was. Our daughter slept in our room for the first month, not because she was nervous or clingy but because for 10 months we’d lived within 30 feet of each other and she liked that. The house felt cavernous and echo-ey and stiflingly small at the same time. We missed the sunset routine of relaxing in the cockpit, searching for the green flash.

The first time I went grocery shopping after our return, something I thought I was excited about – getting everything I want? What? -  I broke down in tears in the tomato aisle. I’d just spent months living in a place where if you saw one kind of tomato in a can, you bought it and celebrated. How on earth can anyone choose between diced and whole and stewed and fire roasted and puree and sauce and paste, let alone all the different brands? Why is this important?

We’d kept a blog while we were gone, and the kids sent regular updates to their classrooms, but there is so much about cruising that is best explained in person. We threw a pizza party and invited whoever wanted to come, bracing for the onslaught of questions.


“What about pirates?”


“Weren’t you scared of hurricanes?”

This is why we went when we did, in the off season.

“Did you just sail around all the time?”

No, we anchored most nights. A night at sea was a rarity, something we did maybe 6 times in the 10 months.

And that was it. Someone else fired off a question about soccer practice, or what teacher they hoped the kids would have next year, or what happened at scouts the week before. Face it. Nobody wanted to hear about our adventure, probably because they had no way to make it real for themselves. While we were searching out laundromats in the Bahamas and building sandcastles, they had been busily living their regular lives back home, shoveling snow and picking paint colors. The shared vocabulary of suburbia didn’t apply anymore, and nobody seemed interested in learning a different language.

The best times were when we were at the yacht club, talking to sailors and friends who could get it at least in some way. They may not have escaped for any longer than a week at a time, but they could envision our lives. They could dream with us.



I spent long hours emailing with friends still out there, desperate to have conversations with people who got it. People who could appreciate the joys of a flush toilet, the terror of life on the highway after life at 5 knots. People whose trials and tribulations (provisioning! Engine troubles! Making the bed on the boat! Laundry!) made sense to me in a tangible, real-life way. Slowly, I reacquainted myself with life on land. That didn’t mean I had to love it, and at first I really didn’t.

We just took 10 days and sailed with our friends on s/v Totem, and I will tell you the re-entry from that 10 days has been every bit as rough as the one from the year-long cruise, minus the conversations about pirates and storms. People can more closely relate to the idea of taking a week off – that’s a vacation length that fits into their world view – but I’m still surprised and a little hurt that so few people have asked about the trip. It feels life-changing. Isn’t that visible from outside?

I felt clumsy driving the car. I looked around our house and wondered why we have so much space. The grocery store felt massive. My daughter sobbed in my arms as she looked at the work she needed to do, the “just get through it” feeling she had on land. As inane as it sounds, coming “back” from cruising is a grief process. And it hurts.

What has helped? Reading posts on Women Who Sail from women who are also grieving. Going through pictures from the week. Talking to friends who are out there, who were once out there. Writing about it. Processing through it while acknowledging that yes, the grief is real and it’s okay to be feeling it.

My daughter said it well when she said, “It’s totally not fair to have something and not have it.” She paused. “But it’s more not fair to not ever have it to begin with.”

Maybe part of my grief this time is that our next cruise is so close I can taste it. That the 10 day interlude was a sharp underlining of how right our decision is. Now I get to live my life on land, trying hard to be present for the process.


See you out there.

A Day in the Life . . . Guest Cruising on Totem


Snapshot of one day on board Totem, a Stevens 47, sailing in the Guna Yala province of Panama (which you may know of as the San Blas Islands) On board for the week are the usual crew of 5 – Jamie and Behan Gifford and kids Niall (18), Mairen (15), and Siobhan (13) plus Mochi the hamster – and visiting cruisers the Waters family – Jeremy and Nica Waters with Julian (18) and Bee (16)

6:30 am. It’s Wednesday, I think. The smell of coffee wakes me, though when I check the clock I decide I don’t need to wake up quite yet and I roll over for another 30 minutes of snoozing.

coffee and sunscreen with a view

coffee and sunscreen with a view

7 am. Coffee in the cockpit is my absolute favorite way to start the day. I see frigate birds whirl overhead, listen to the wind generator spin power, and marvel at the way the clouds move in the sky.

8 am. Behan is making bannock, kind of oatcake muffin scone things that you cook on the stovetop. I’d like to learn the recipe. Mairen tackles the dish mountain from last night while Bee and Siobhan tidy up the main cabin, putting away the extra bedding needed for Bee. 9 people on a boat suited for 5 is a stretch, but so far there have been no complaints. (Read more about living aboard)



            Julian and Niall are still asleep. They’ll likely be there for a while.

            The loose plan for today is to move to another anchorage where we think we can get on a beach and where there are likely to be fewer boats. With this wind, it may well be too rolly for an overnight stay, so it’ll be a lunch stop.

            Here, though, there is decent internet available, and there’s some email and a blog post to take care of. Once that’s done, we’ll get underway. The college application work Niall needed to get out yesterday is done, with the receipt confirmed by the school. Fingers crossed it pays off!

            Jamie changes spark plugs on the dinghy engine, which is not working as smoothly as he’d like.

9:30 am. Hatches closed, anchor is up. It’s a short trek, so we’re charging, running the watermaker, and heating water for showers.

10:30. Anchor down at Gun Cay, a reef just ahead of us and another island where Gilligan might have been shipwrecked off to port. Utopia is 50 yards away. It’s been a 5 mile passage, and it’s Totem’s 555th time anchoring. We’ll celebrate with a swim. The snorkel expedition is a 2-dinghy, 9 people, one. We’re calling it successful, with soft corals, a moray eel, a nurse shark, lobster and crab sightings, and enough fish to keep our interest for a while.


12:30. Corn chowder on the stove, laundry being hung from lifelines. Niall regales us with some highlights from Totem’s almost-complete circumnavigation.

2 pm. I start my workout on the foredeck while the boys go to shore to ask permission to fly the drone. After a sound rebuff, they return to up anchor while I work hard to keep my balance and finish my sweat session.

My gym.

My gym.

3:10 pm. We’re anchored off of Isla Maquina, a Guna village island we’ve been invited by Islaflora, Venanzio’s brother, to visit and tour with him. Venanzio is the master mola maker we bought some wares from the other day. All of us are going in for the tour, though Jamie and Andrew are making noises about wanting to work on Utopia’s watermaker. It just needs to last until Shelter Bay, where the new one is waiting.

4:30 pm. We’re anchored at Gaygar for the night. “Pool is closed,” says Jamie, indicating the silty water, sloped and jungle-y waterfront. Prime crocodile territory. Andrew thinks he saw one on his fish finder, and though we look across the water for logs moving against the wind, we don’t see anything. I’m not sure we’re pleased or not. In any case, there is no swimming tonight!


5:00 pm. The shower parade has begun, as has the conversation about what to have for dinner. Burgers it will be! Behan whips up dough for rolls and we slice onions for the grill, mixing burger meat with seasonings and a few things to stretch the 2 pounds of meat. Leftovers are heated up for nibbles with sundowners in the cockpit – lobster paella and cheese dip. Perfect! Use up leftovers and celebrate another lovely sunset. Wins all around.

5:30 pm. Forward head is clogged again. It takes a little cajoling, a little turning off of water pressure and priming the pump, and it’s clear. Whew.

7:30 pm. Buns are baked, burgers are grilled, and everyone is happily eating. Kids are in fierce competition over bananagrams, so we adults leave them below and eat in the cockpit, discussing the plans for tomorrow and checking weather. The second box of peppermint JoJos is broken into for dessert.

Kids and bananagrams

Kids and bananagrams

9:00. Cruisers midnight. Behan and I leave Jamie and Jeremy pulling out the ipad and the starwalk app to look at the stars, and I fall asleep to the sound of laughter from the main cabin as well as the cockpit.

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Sailing Sunsets

A photo post. Taken in various places, over the years. 

Because sunsets are magic.

And so is cruising.

See you out there.