life aboard

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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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.

*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.