Cruises with Friends…and the Loss of a Dear Companion

January passed aboard Independence rather uneventfully, with Ole doing his routine, and me reading everything in sight, when not going ashore in Cozumel, Costa Maya, Belize, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, San Juan, and Labadee.

Speaking of Labadee, we were headed there, scheduled to call in just three days after the massive earthquake. Sentiment aboard the ship was mixed, with some folks eager to do what they could to help, and others uncomfortable with the thought of playing at the beach on an island with devastation just a hundred miles away. I’ve got to hand it to Royal Caribbean, though, for compassion and organization. During our call at San Juan on Thursday, the ship was able to pick up and deliver many pallets of water and medical supplies to offload in the hopes it could get transported to where it was most needed. Furthermore, the ship and the company decided to donate all revenue generated on the beach that day toward the earthquake relief. When you consider that there are ship calls by Royal Caribbean there five days a week, many locals are employed that would have been left devastated had the ships not called. On the evening before the first scheduled port call, the ship’s captain made an announcement to that effect, and received a standing ovation.

Al and Jan Furtado, friends of ours from the Pompano Beach Power Squadron, joined us for a cruise departing on the 17th. It was good to see them and catch up on old times.

Maggie and Bud Husted, dear friends from our former marina in Ft. Lauderdale, were able to come with us on an eastbound cruise, and bring much missed mail, PassageMaker magazines, and boat parts with them. Some of the fun during their cruise included a group of Elvis impersonators, who gave a benefit performance on the last sea day, to the delight of everyone. And Maggie, unable to sleep one night, managed to hit it big in the casino!!! While they were aboard, Maggie and I took a cab to Marigot on the French side of St. Maarten, where I hadn’t been in 25 years. Bud attempted fishing, meaning he went out in a boat with several folks who got seasick. The three of us rented a cab in St. Thomas and took a great tour around the island, and in San Juan we hiked up to El Morro, the fortress that guards the entrance to San Juan harbor. In Labadee, we sat in the shade, and Maggie was able to find some garden fancies at the craft shop.


Our cruise with them was darkened by the news that our beloved feline companion of nearly 16 years, Mary Margaret von Stripenfurs, passed over the rainbow bridge to the clearing at the end of the path on Friday, January 29, at 2:15 in the afternoon. Dale and Linda followed our instructions and buried her at sea in the Secas islands, with a catnip mouse for company. We will miss her sorely. Her crankiness, her beauty, her sweet voice, and her outrageous purring gave us many happy years. Rest in Peace, dear pussycat.



Happy New Year from Independence of the Seas!

New Year’s Eve at Niccola’s Cabin

The beginning of the year greets us with more change. It looks like Ole’s schedule is changing (again) and our projected 10 weeks of planned projects will be cut down to 5 weeks.

We were invited to present at the 2009 Winter DeFever Rendezvous at Useppa Island Resort in western Florida the end of February, and Ole has a 5-day course from Wartsilla Diesel the third week of February. So we’ve got to get our heads around a new schedule.

The first three weeks of this month were relatively uneventful otherwise, aboard the Independence. Many books read, a few beach days and a bit of shopping in preparation for the Rendezvous next month. Ole signed off on January 24, and we had a pleasant trip back to Bocas and Emma Jo, including a quick overnight in Panama City at the Alderbrook Inn. Sounds more romantic than it was – after a short flight, a loooonnnnngggg wait through Panama immigration, and an even longer bus ride, we got there after 11:00 pm and found no food or drink could be had. So it was up and at ‘em first thing, to fly on Air Panama back to Bocas.

Brian does such a great job looking after the cats – Barclay and Maggie seemed a bit put out that we weren’t giving them snacks and brushing every time they asked! I’m amazed they’re both still alive and well, given we live in the third world and there isn’t a lot of veterinary care to be had. Maggie is back up to her fighting weight, and Barclay , though a bit slim and cloudy-eyed still has the will and coordination to go after the geckos that are brave enough to zip around the boat.

We came home to a few changes at the marina, too. Sharkey has left, leaving the Cantina in the creative care of Dyllan and Darion. The menu is improved, Brian is still cooking, and the service is getting to be pretty top-drawer for this part of the world.

Steve from Serenity is back, too – seems like Ole and Steve are on a pretty closely-matched schedule, so we’ve been socializing a bit here and there.

One of the things we need to do is get the bimini repaired – we came home to find that both it and the bridge cover were in need of some tlc after the wind and rain in Panama this winter. Speaking of which – it hasn’t exactly been cruising weather here. Lots of rain, cool temperatures (cool for here is the low 70’s) and heavy cloud cover.

Running Errands in David

Well, if all goes according to plan, Ole gets back on Sunday morning.  He phoned me on arrival at Turku to tell me that American Airlines had “misplaced” his luggage in Miami on the way into Finland…a few worries for a few hours…but it showed up on Monday.

I took Maggie in to see the volunteer vet, and wonder of wonders, she’s put on 2 pounds, her fur is looking better, and she appears to be tolerating the thyroid medication (Tapazol) quite well.  The ride over was even pleasant (relatively speaking).  In the lancha, from her travel box, she seemed a whole lot less frightened than in the dinghy—and there was only discharge from the forward end this time.  The vet is pleased.  Now for the challenge of finding a steady supply to keep her motor from racing.  She looks more like a cat (a svelte one) than a p.o.w. cat.  She had us worried!

Kathy (from Attitude) and I went for an overnight trip to David, to meet Toby, the local “fixer” and visit a dermatologist, find bulk cat food and litter at the Central American Costco equivalent, and round up some Sunbrella for miscellaneous sewing projects around the boat.  Found a great little hotel, the Castilla, right downtown, where a double room was only $45.  Clean, bright, friendly, with comfortable beds and a decent restaurant and bar!  Good Gringo find.  Another great find was a restaurant we would have overlooked if not for a reference from Toby.  Called “El Renegado” (the renegade), it’s run by a Spaniard and his Peruvian wife.  Great ceviche, good wine selection, and an interesting menu.  The restaurant is on the Pan-American highway, and looks like a typical roadside comedor, but the food is first class.

The dermatologist turned up a small basal cell on my face – no real surprise there, as I’ve had them before.  They say (whoever they are) that skin cancers are actually germinated when you get sunburned as a kid.  Lord knows I had my share of childhood sunburn, exacerbated by 15 months in Tahiti protected by nothing but coconut oil, not to mention some real doozies here, caused by 15 minutes of floating on my back in the noonday sun while at anchor.  Nothing that a bit of liquid nitrogen couldn’t fix, but with this lifestyle I’ll have to stay vigilant.

Great Service at Bocas Marina

Another vote for the quality of the folks at Bocas Marina. I originally planned to be home today, and left food and water out for the cats accordingly. So I emailed Chuck at the marina, who assured me that he’d make sure the cats had enough until I get home Saturday. What amazing service!

More Fun with Spanish

The highlight of the month has been Spanish class for me.  I opted to continue for 3 weeks to stay with the other two women in my class, and worked my way through the preterit, imperfect, future and conditional tenses, none of which I understood back in college.  It’s becoming clear though that what I’m missing is vocabulary, so I’ll have to start reading the paper or find myself some children’s books to start to grow it.  But the confidence is coming.  I also like the way the classes are structured – the first two hours are grammar, and the second two hours are conversation.  The instructors are all very young and enthusiastic, most from Costa Rica, and most of them quite good at prompting and coaching when we make mistakes.  One of the instructors is a young man named Andres that reminds me of the actor that played Frodo in the Lord of the Rings  — tiny, bright-eyed, with a mop of choppy brown hair.  I keep looking to see if he has hairy feet…he instructed one of the women in the class to watch South Park and bring back a report, so we spent two hours discussing the characters in South Park in Spanish.

A travelling veterinarian came by the marina early in the month to update Barclay’s rabies shot and have a look at poor little Maggie.  I never thought it was possible to see hollows under the eyes of a cat, but she’s really a shadow of her former self.  The vet proclaimed there was nothing to be done for her but lots of love, and gave her a 6-8-month window until she heads for the “clearing at the end of the path.”  Bless her, she still purrs like a diesel, talks more than ever, and lets me know when it’s bedtime, joining me on the pillow and giving me about a 10-minute scalp massage before settling down for the night in the cool of the bathroom floor.  As long as she still yells for food in the mornings and evenings, and drinks lots of water during the day, it indicates to me that her mood is fine and she’s not in any pain.  As an old lady, that’s better than most people do.

Happy Birthday to Me!

November 11, 2007
At Anchor, New Haven, Belize

Happy Birthday to me!!!

We left Texan Bay Marina yesterday morning at 9:45, aiming for New Haven in southern Belize. The weather wasn’t all that great, overcast with some showers, but it matched our mood at saying goodbye to the Rio Dulce.

The cruise downriver was a bit like a farewell parade, as some fish were running that brought out the Mayan cayucos by the dozen.

Crossing the corner of the Gulf of Honduras wasn’t too bad – certainly it wasn’t as placid as our arrival last March – and it came as a shock to the system of Mary Margaret von Stripenfurs, the seasick pussycat princess. Part of the securing for sea ritual is making a circuit of her “deposit” sites, trying to keep things tidy for obvious reasons. When we finally dropped anchor in New Haven at 2:45 in the afternoon and shut down the engines and generators, she glowered at us until the food dish was lowered at 5:30.

After the obligatory anchor dram and nap, Ole made me a birthday dinner featuring huge pork chops (from the Casa Guatemala orphanage store) braised in herbs and apple juice, with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh green beans – followed by a beautifully conceived Norwegian cream cake, caffe lattes made with the stovetop machine and cognac. Great celebration!

October Brings a Change of Plans…

Hacienda Tijax

This month saw many of our neighbors flying back up north to visit friends and family before moving their boats– Ans and Gerald back to Holland – Rosie back to England – and many others doing the “grand tour” of Guatemala, to Tikal, Chichicastenango, Antigua and the like.

The cats and I simply stayed home, trying to busy ourselves with painting the deck furniture, varnishing the teak table before Ole got home, and project-managing the construction and canvas projects we had contracted out to local craftsmen. Added to that were a bi-weekly zip across the river for happy hour at the Sundog Café (TWO gin and tonics for the hefty price of one – 75 cents!), a restaurant visit once a week or so, and the odd visit by our buddy Spiff, I was kept entertained.

But ten weeks is quite a long time to be alone on the boat without Ole, and the prospect of keeping the boat here another seven or eight months during Ole’s transition to a new ship made my feet (fins?) itchy. So at about one in the morning, a week before Ole got home, we decided just to use this upcoming vacation period to head further south to Panama.

The first highlight of the month was Ole getting back at about 3:00 am on the 27th. We rested up for a day or so, then started our “before we leave the dock” list. Thankfully, there were no huge projects – just a lot of piddly ones (current count is 38), including finishing the carpentry that our contractor had not, changing a few gaskets in the engine room, installing red lights in the instrument panel to eliminate glare at night, and bandaging up the boo-boo we got while bashing into Spiff out on the Lake.

Another highlight was the Halloween party at the Sundog, apparently an annual tradition (this is the second annual). Sundog is unique on the river, catering more to the European crowd than some of the other, more Americano-concentrated spots. It’s run by Babette and her boyfriend Jurin (pronounced “Yuri”) a 30-something Dutch couple with looks crying out to be discovered by Hollywood. Both of them are charming, cheerful, and fluent in about 5 languages, right down to the joking and swearing. Their party started at 3:00 in the afternoon, and was reputed to have gone on until sometime after 2:00 a.m. – though we couldn’t attest to anything later than about 10:30, getting way too old for very much heavy partying. The apex for us was the Macarena – it was all downhill after that!

Current plans are to leave the 8th of November – my passport stamp expires then – and head north to pick up some of the places we missed while cruising Belize. We’ll then turn south toward the Bay Islands of Honduras (Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja), then turn the corner of Nicaragua, stopping at Providencia and San Andres before running south to Bocas del Toro. As we cruise, updates and photos will be more frequent.

By the way – Maggie the cat is still going strong, though thin as a wire. Alianna, the sailboat across from us with Sim and Rosie aboard, has a young cat named “Ali” who has not yet learned the finer feline social graces. She comes aboard and challenges our two, and little Maggie is the one who routinely kicks ass. Fortunately, nobody’s been in the water of late – but that could change!

September on the Rio

Hacienda Tijax

The good news is that the repair to our boat is costing next to nothing by US standards — only $100 for the fiberglass work, and a total of about $200 for the wood repairs, which began early this month.
Oscar was also kind enough to recommend a canvas guy, Luis to help us reconstruct a new bridge cover and recover the flybridge cushions. Although he used the old one as a pattern, when he brought the new one over, it didn’t fit. Undaunted, he came back with his sewing machine, and sat on the dock fitting, cutting, and refitting until it worked. Unfortunately, he was a few snaps short (sounds like a mental condition, but it’s not) of a full bridge cover, so he has to make a special trip to Guatemala City for more. I’m so impressed with his work that we’re having a dinghy cover made to match.

We were also fortunate enough to get hooked up with an American woman married to a beef rancher who is willing to supply American-cut steaks, chops and roasts. She’s from Wisconsin, apparent in the way she spoke to me about homemade “saaaasages” — so we gave her a try. Four of us boaters ordered filet mignon, New York and sirloin steaks, and talked Eugene and the staff into making us a barbecue pit out by the pool — needless to say, a good time was had by all. There’s a little palm-covered outdoor bar with refrigerator, bar stools in the pool that sit against the bar — and all of it was put to good use, with each of us bringing pot luck. The hit of the evening was an impromptu invention of men-vs-women water polo that had us all laughing our sides off and feeling like little kids. Really — how long has it been since YOU got to engage in physical, rough-and-tumble honest-to-goodness play!

Our game was observed in drunken amusement by about 15 Dutch students, who stayed at their end of the pool stacking up empty beer cans six-deep and wondering why they couldn’t cut loose like we did.

Even the staff had fun, peering out from the kitchen on occasion, and gratefully accepting tips of ice cream sundaes.

Maggie continues to get thinner by the day, and by the end of the month, she’s just about half her normal weight. Thankfully she’s eating (we’re now supplementing with canned sardines) and drinking plenty of water, and still fairly cheerful, thanks to the more frequent use of air conditioning. If I were to anthropomorphize, it’s almost as if she knows her little days are drawing to an end. I’m still sad, but talking to other boaters about how they celebrate the passing of their pets. I think we can do her honor when her time comes.

Aaaah. So THIS is Cruising!

March 16, 2007
Spruce Cay, Belize

We spent another day at Southwater Cay, relaxing in the morning and going ashore to explore in the afternoon.

The island has two lodges – Blue Marlin and Pelican – on opposite ends, and a private homestead for the Bowman family, an outpost of the IZE (International Zoological Expeditions), and a station for Southwater Cay University in between. All of these facilities exist on an island that is barely ½ mile long and about 100 yards wide, situated right on the barrier reef, and are connected with a one-person wide footpath. Everyone we met along our walk was lovely, friendly and welcoming. After our walk, we ended up back at Blue Marlin, and waded out to the top of the reef for a look.

We opted to dinghy ashore for a decent, family-style dinner in their lovely restaurant, where the only other patrons were the family of four that we had met the day we arrived. We can’t say the prices were exactly reasonable, but considering that every single item on the menu or in the bar has to come in by boat from 20 miles away, it wasn’t too dreadful, either.

We called it an early night, in order to get ready to cross about 10 miles over to Spruce Cay this morning, arriving about noon.

Spruce Cay is yet another ¼ mile-across mangrove island, but its redeeming feature is an almost circular surrounding reef, which required some zigzagging to get through safely. Once we anchored, we took the dinghy through the lagoon to take some soundings, as we are not yet too adept at matching up what we see with the depth sounder with what we see over the side. Reading water colors is an art that requires much practice.

Once we decided we had enough depth and swinging room, we loaded up the snorkel gear and headed for the southwest side of the island where our cruising guide said good snorkeling was to be had. We were not disappointed. This was the best so far, with plenty of colorful corals – red, purple, mustard and orange – with quite a few fish and startlingly clear water. This is the snorkeling experience I have wanted Ole to have – like being in a dentist’s office aquarium.

This notion of nothing to do but swim and snorkel and have cocktails on the aft deck in our skivvies and watch the sunset is exactly what we had hoped for! Even the cats are finally chilling out, but we need a lock on the fridge…

We’ll spend another night, and head for Placencia in the morning.

Lessons Learned (Part 1 of Many…)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007
At anchor, Bahia del Espiritu Santo
Quintana Roo, Mexico

It’s clear that every day contains lessons learned.

On Sunday evening, at 9:00, we weighed anchor from San Miguel in Cozumel, headed just about due south for Bahia del Espiritu Santo some 86 nautical miles down the coast. The first three hours we were in the lee of Cozumel, had light winds, and gentle swell from the south southeast, and we said to ourselves, hey – this won’t be too bad. Had some tunes on the I-pod, homemade oatmeal cookies, a pot of French Roast sitting in the thermos in the sink, and everything secured for sea. The swells, though 4 to 6 feet, were long and slow enough for us to actually enjoy them.

Then we discovered that the boat can take way more than either the autopilot or the crew.

About half an hour south of the tip of Cozumel, we were in the deep blue of the ocean, and the winds steadily increased to between 18 and 25 miles per hour, and the size of the swell began to overwhelm the autopilot. By about 2:45 a.m., with Jan on watch and Ole trying to catch some rest down below, the autopilot screamed that it had had enough, what with trying to maintain 6.5 knots while fighting off a steady east wind, a strong north setting current, swells increasing to 8-10 feet, and an annoying wind chop on top.

When the autopilot started screaming, Jan had had enough, and luckily Ole decided that a screaming autopilot and nervous wife warranted some adjustment. We dropped speed to about 5.5 knots, and Ole began what ended up to be about 6 hours of hand steering in increasingly turbulent conditions. The hard part was that we couldn’t see the big ones approaching, and once in awhile caught some big swells on the port bow that caused some great sliding and rolling. As we watched the miles and the clock gradually ticking down, we took comfort in the fact that we would be entering the reef at Bahia del Espiritu Santo some time around 9:00 in the morning.

So there we were…and this is no poop…looking at the lighthouse on the south end of the entrance to Bahia del Espiritu Santo, the British Admiralty chart of the area (latest datum 1999), the Raymarine chart plotter (new), and Captain Freya Raucher’s Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast (1986) … and all three of them said something different about where the entrance to the reef was!

Captain Trevor had told us about “eyeball navigation” which was great in theory. In the heavy chop it was difficult eyeball exactly where the reef began and ended, and where the safe passage lay.

Confronted with three disparate views about where we were supposed to enter the reef without becoming kindling, we had to cruise back and forth for about an hour, perform some calculations on the paper chart, express our separate viewpoints, read the Cruising Guide over and over, and make a decision. A cruiser we had met at el Milagro in Isla Mujeres who had just returned from this area told us that the positions listed in the Cruising Guide were “right on,” so we decided to trust them, even though the chart plotter and the paper chart showed us that her waypoint was smack on the reef.

So, clenching our sphincters firmly, we steered toward a point that the chart plotter and the chart told us were on the reef, but in actuality was the safe opening that Captain Raucher had documented, and Jeff from el Milagro had told us.

Lesson learned: Charts and plotters are called AIDS to navigation.—they are not God’s law. Local knowledge is called local knowledge for a reason. Trust local knowledge — recent local knowledge.

About a mile inside the reef, we sat for a few minutes and realized we had not made a decision about where we were going to anchor. So we cruised south toward the lighthouse (as the sun moved steadily south, creating glare on the water and making the dark shapes hard to read – were they grass? Coral? Shadow from the clouds?). When the depth sounder registered 4.2 feet in an area charted as 10 feet, we turned around and cruised back toward the north side of the bay, hoping for deeper and calmer water.

Finally, about 11:00 a.m., realizing we were not going to find a flat, calm place to anchor in 20-knot winds, we picked a spot between the reef and a beach, in about 9 feet of water – put out 75 feet of chain, cracked open a cold Miller, and went to bed. 14 hours of overnight cruising in less than ideal conditions, plus the need to make a gut decision in unfamiliar waters made for more stress than any of our previous cruises have produced.

Lessons learned:

  1. Any anchorage that lies in enough water with enough chain and doesn’t lie in 8-10 foot swells is a great anchorage when you’re exhausted.
  2. The first cold beer after a night passage like that one is the best beer you’ve ever tasted.
  3. It is good to nap.

After the nap, we treated ourselves to a swim and some naked pina coladas on the aft deck as the sun went down, a simple dinner, and an unheard-of bedtime of 9:00 pm.

Now for a report on the 4-legged crew:

Barclay is amazing. She insisted on staying in the pilothouse with us without complaint throughout the crossing, and when I wouldn’t let her out the salon door for the “outside” water dish, she decided to sneak out the pilothouse doors and drink from it anyway instead of from the “inside” dish in the galley. As she stuck her head out the door, the wind flattened her ears against her head, she hunkered down, and shouldered her way down the side deck before we even registered that she had done it, and was back a few minutes later, taking up her usual cruising position at the base of the fly bridge steps

Maggie has earned many points on this crossing toward her Junior Sea Scout badge. There was only one barfing incident, she thoughtfully aimed it at her own scratching pad, then stayed the night under the aft wicker chair in the salon instead of down below as usual. As soon as the engines were cut, she demanded breakfast, then sacked out on the back deck for a nap, even though the boat was moving at this anchorage more than during any of our past cruises.

Lesson Learned: The cats are fine, and can stubbornly take care of their own needs pretty damn well.

Now comes the interesting part. Tomorrow evening we have to intentionally head out of here and do this again for another 66 miles in order enter Xcalac, our official “exit port” from Mexico, so that we can officially enter Belize in San Pedro on Thursday morning and get tied up in Belize City by Friday.

Lesson Learned:

  1. Do not, if you can help it, commit to a schedule if you are going to do this.
  2. If you must go out in seas beyond your present comfort zone because you have been stupid enough to commit to a schedule, stock up on brown shorts.