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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How do You Decide to Go Cruising?


There’s something magical about going cruising the first time. There’s so much loaded into that journey, so many nay-sayers and personal doubts. So many boats sitting on the dock, while owners spend weekend after weekend getting “ready to go” but never actually leaving the dock with the lines kept aboard.

When you head off (and I don’t care if it’s for a week, a month, a year, or “forever”), you’ve joined a special club.

How do you make a decision to go cruising anyway? The decision we made to go the second time, to take the kids and a year and head south, was made, at least on the surface, over the course of one very memorable dinner out.

Sometimes all it takes is a shift in how you ask a question to open it all up.


It was December 28, 2008, our 15th wedding anniversary. For once we got a babysitter to hang with the kids. We opted for eating outside, next to a loud propane heater thing on the patio covered with a plastic-looking canvas tent with plastic-looking “windows” designed to look, from the outside, like some floppy house. It was not the most auspicious beginning to dinner – we’d been counting on being indoors next to the Tulikivi fireplace on this cold December night, complete with freezing rain and a chilly breeze. But reservations are not normally a part of our vocabulary, so when offered the choice of waiting for 2 hours to sit inside or sitting outside, we shrugged back into our coats and went for the outside.

Drinks ordered, we settled back into conversation. When we did get to eat somewhere without the kids, the conversation was usually about the boat or about sailing. Our first wedding anniversary was spent on Bimini, after a really really awful Gulf Stream crossing, and the tradition of talking about “where do you see us in xxx years” and “what was the best part of the last xxx years” started even then.

“Best part, hands down, was going cruising.” That had been the standard answer since 1997.

                                             Sailing the offshore islands of Venezuela

                                             Sailing the offshore islands of Venezuela

“Why was it so good?” I asked. I had my own reasons, of course, and I’d heard Jeremy’s a few times before, but I love seeing him light up when he talks about sailing.

“Freedom. Being in charge of my own choices. Spearfishing. Sailing. Geez, I wish we could go cruising again.”

“Yeah, but that’s not happening again any time soon,” I responded. “We’ve got too much to do here.”

“You’re right.” Jeremy paused. “Let’s put an air conditioner on the boat. It’ll make it more comfortable for weekends aboard. This Chesapeake weather is rough for sleeping when it’s summer.”

We talked about the kind of air conditioner to get, how expensive it would be, what other projects we wanted to do.

I took a sip of wine, then blurted out. “Wait. Why NOT go cruising again? We’ve always talked about wanting to take the kids . . .”

“Why not? Umm, school.” He looked at me like I had 2 heads.

“Homeschool. I'm a teacher, remember?”

                                                                     Boat schooling.

                                                                     Boat schooling.


“We’ll rent it.”

“The boat needs a new engine.”

“Really? Does it?” I was getting into the argument of it. Tell me not to do something, and generally I get fired up about doing it. Contrary nature, I suppose.

“Hmm. Maybe not. And the economy stinks. You’ve already quit your job. I’ll just quit mine.” Jeremy was starting to warm up to this whole idea.

And the conversation continued, getting more and more animated as every objection we could mount became an exercise in figuring out ways around it. We’d stopped asking why we should go – instead we were asking why NOT. It was a challenge. A defiance.

Three little letters.

By the end of that dinner, which had begun in an almost mournful way on an outdoor patio with zero ambience that somehow seemed fitting for a discussion about how everything was better once upon a time, we were casting off our lines in the fall.

Yes, leaving the first time is unbelievable. It shows fortitude and adventure. Showcases a mentality of independence and a little bit of “I don’t really care what you think.” It’s a great dismissive gesture at a society that can’t understand anything different at all. It’s a time of unreal learning, abject fear and terror, and indescribable beauty.

Leaving the second time somehow feels even more momentous. Somehow it means, to me, that we’ve really proved we can do it. Not just once. Bring on the next time.

                                                         Sailing into Warderick Wells 

                                                         Sailing into Warderick Wells 

Provisioning Practice for the Land-Based Planner


When we first decided we were going cruising, I was a newly-minted college grad, playing house with my boyfriend in a 2-bedroom apartment that split the distance between his work and mine. What I knew about cruising was learned from 2 summers of teaching sailing with Sail Caribbean, plying the waters of the BVI and the Leewards on 50’ sailboats with a crew of teenagers. Food was provided, along with lists of what we were supposed to have, what we were supposed to make, and recipes to follow. Those boats had huge freezers and larger refrigerators, and one of the worst jobs was cleaning the charter juice out of the bottom after a 3-week program ended.


Our boat would have a refrigerator the size of a small cooler and no freezer. Nobody was going to magically appear with a few boxes of food on a regular basis, along with a plan of what I was supposed to do with that food. I better learn what to do now, before we left.


It was the early 90s, before the internet made everything accessible at the tap of a few fingers on a keyboard, so my main references were books, mostly purchased from the Blue Water Bookstore. There was the tried and true Joy of Cooking*. A book by Michael Greenwald called “The Cruising Chef”. A couple of pressure cooker and bean cookbooks. And the book that would find a priceless place on my bookshelf, a place it holds firmly today – Lin Pardey’s The Care and Feeding of the Offshore Crew (it’s since been renamed "The Care and Feeding of the Sailing Crew", and that's what the link is for.)

I have a fondness for Lin and Larry Pardey for many reasons, but chief among them has to be that we own a boat designed by the same guy who designed both of theirs. That I’ve since gotten to personally know Lin still feels like a bit of a pinch-me-now situation. When Lin talks about how to organize a galley (which is really like organizing your boat, because the food winds up in lockers all over), it’s like she’s standing in Calypso’s salon, directing me. She’s almost never steered me wrong when it comes to food stuff, although I’m far less of a fan of corned beef than she is.

                                             Lin and me at the Annapolis Boat Show, October 2017

                                             Lin and me at the Annapolis Boat Show, October 2017

She taught me the importance of trying canned goods at home before stocking up. The importance of learning to create meals out of items you’d have left after 2 weeks or longer since you saw a grocery store. And the importance of using leftovers so you don’t waste food.

There may be those reading who are in the planning stages of your cruise. I’ll offer three tips for provisioning practice that you can work on right now, before you move aboard.

1.     Observe the kinds of food you like to eat. Be a student of your preferences as far as food goes. If you like it on land, you’ll LOVE it on board. Understanding what you like to eat is critical to making an accurate list when it comes time for provisioning.


2.     Start thinking about food that lasts a long time, and how to use it. Sure, there are fresh staples like cabbage and onions and garlic, but there’s also some really fabulous stuff in the packaged section you might like to try once to see how you like it. On my list in this category is jackfruit, some of the Thai curry options, and even powdered hummus mix. Will we like it all? Maybe, maybe not; but if we do, we have expanded our options for eating well when we decide to stay an extra few days in that perfect anchorage. I spend an extra few minutes in the sections of the grocery store that are dedicated to my favorite kinds of food (see #1!) and if there is something that catches my eye, I either buy it on that trip or make a note to pick it up next time.

                                                                  long-life cream!

                                                                  long-life cream!

3.     Pick ONE thing to learn how to make from scratch that right now you buy as a matter of course. Maybe it’s queso dip. (no judging – I have teenagers) Maybe it’s fresh bread. Maybe it’s salad dressing or spaghetti sauce or yogurt or hummus. It’s a whole lot easier when you’re cruising to carry ingredients you can use to make a lot of different dishes rather than just buying the specific dish. If you’re so inclined, check out Tasty Thursday, my YouTube playlist, where every Thursday I share a simple recipe or tip designed to make you think, “Hey, I can do that!”. The show’s been running weekly since October of 2012 – there’s a lot there! And if you don’t have a copy of The Boat Galley cookbook yet, what on earth are you waiting for!

                                     homemade pizza

                                     homemade pizza

Provisioning can feel daunting, especially when you see pictures of boats piled high with canned and packaged goods that need to be stored in every conceivable cranny. A little forethought, planning, and understanding can alleviate that feeling. Start practicing now!

                                                           loading up for the Bahamas

                                                           loading up for the Bahamas


Side note: If you’re planning to be at Cruisers University at the Annapolis Spring Boat Show in October of 2018, stop by and say hi to Carolyn and me. She’s teaching a class on hurricane prep, and I’m sharing more provisioning tips plus offering a class on the dreams vs realities of cruising. We’d love to see you.

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When Does Cruising Really Start?

I’ve learned a lot of lessons from cruising, and some I hope I’ve learned. The importance of being present to what’s happening, even while deep in the midst of prepping to leave, is one I’m still working on.

I was 21 when Jeremy said 4 words that would forever change my life.

He waited until the waiter at the pizza place had left the menus, then leaned in.

“I’ve got something to tell you.”

I stared at my hands. At him. At the menu. It’s likely there were tears in my eyes. Was this the break up talk? At College Inn pizza, on a Friday night, surrounded by strangers? My brain raced with the what ifs. Am I the only one whose brain goes immediately to “what did I do wrong” when someone says those words? It feels like being back in the principals office.

The waiter came back. I’m pretty sure I ordered something – that is, after all, what you do when you’re out for dinner. The waiter went away and my fear rushed back in. My mouth went dry and my hands got clammy.

The words came as if from a far distance. “Let’s buy a boat.”

Jeremy, walking down the Lawn on graduation day.

Jeremy, walking down the Lawn on graduation day.

I can still vividly remember the almost levitating feeling of relief. “Is that all?”


“I want to go cruising.”


He’d been sailing and talking about sailing for as long as I’d known him. We met on the sailing team at the University of Virginia (we sailed on a man-made inland lake about 25 miles away), and he’d been teaching sailing on big boats in the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean during spring break and summers since his first year at school.


This wasn’t that big of a surprise. How hard could this cruising thing be, anyway? It’s like a fulltime vacation, right?


So we graduated, landed jobs, and moved to Texas (in 1991, there were not many options for a non-US citizen in a really awful job market) with this goal in our heads. The apartment was chosen because it had the all-important second bedroom – not for guests, or for a kid, but for the wooden dinghy he started building even before we unpacked all the boxes. Evenings were spent eating rice and beans (to save money), poring over cruising guides and boat magazines, endlessly discussing the kind of boat we should buy and where we should go. By the following spring we’d found the boat, the 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter we still own, adopted a beagle, and began the cruising prep in earnest. 

Toby the boat beagle

Toby the boat beagle

It was decided. A 2-year cruise was what we could swing, we thought, based on a pulled-from-thin air budget of $1000 a month. Our destination? The Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean, though the idea of a Caribbean circumnavigation was entertained more than once. Every instant was spent talking about the boat, working on the boat, or discussing the cruise. Was there anything other than the future?


Cruising prep involves a lot of projects, a lot of lists, and a lot of learning. I remember certain moments about those 3 years, but mostly I remember worrying about what was next. A project was finished (putting the head on the boat, building the galley) and immediately the next one started. Enjoy the process? Who has time to do that, when the TO DO list was longer than I am tall. I think I took maybe 3 pictures the whole time, mostly of the mess or of the dog curled up in some corner.


Questions swirled. Would we be able to get the finished dinghy out of the room it was being built in? How would the dog do on the boat? What would life be like in such a small space? How could I cook aboard? Could I get tired of beaches? What actually do you do on a boat all day?


The next three years flew by in a blur of endless boat work and more endless driving (my commute was 70 miles each way, and we carpooled together to save money), and on September 10, 1994, we slipped under the Kemah bridge and into Galveston Bay with enough gear on board to put us down an extra 2 inches on our lines, towing that dinghy (it came out of the room!) and followed by a few friends on their own boats cheering us on as we headed off for our adventure.


I found one of the log books we kept during that first cruise, a map-decorated hardbound journal. Here are some of the entries.


July. We leave in 2 months to go cruising. It’s starting to be real. We’re prepping now – we’ll really be cruising once we leave the dock.

October 10: One month in. We need to find a place to tuck the boat while we head back to Houston for an appointment. When we get back from that, we’ll really be cruising.

November 25: Thanksgiving tied to the dock at Dotty and Waldy’s, finishing up the dinghy seats. They loaned us a car for easy provisioning. Next stop, the Dry Tortugas. When we get there, we’ll really be cruising.

December 25: What a crappy Christmas. It's dumping rain and howling wind. We're all alone in the anchorage, with canned ham, canned peas, and canned potatoes for Christmas dinner. We leave for the Bahamas tomorrow. I can’t wait to really be cruising.

May 1: We leave for Rum Cay tomorrow, then on to the Turks and Caicos. I think this is where we really start cruising, when we leave the Bahamas. I wonder who we’ll see there.


When I re-read logs from the first year, the “we’ll really be cruising when . . .” line is repeated over and over again. It almost makes me sad to go back and read it. Not for the adventures and mishaps that are chronicled, and not even for the sense of nostalgia as I read the words written by 24 year old me. But the constant looking ahead, FOMO even then. That was a lifetime ago. Have I learned anything since then?

How much cruising, how much life, did I miss wondering when it was going to start?


We are less than 2 years out from our next cruise, this time with a timeline of  “as long as it’s fun.” There are lots of projects. Incredible lists that now have titles like “selling the house” and “getting the kids settled in college” and “MUST DO BEFORE WE LEAVE”. The learning feels just as steep, though a few of the worries are just not there any more. There’s no dinghy being built in a spare bedroom, no concerns about “what do you do out there all day?”


I’m trying to be present, to focus on what’s happening now. I know that this part, the prep part, is as valuable and as valid a part of cruising as any of those perfect sunsets or incredible beach walks.


It’s all cruising. No waiting required.