The Anchor Watch

French Harbor, Roatán 16o 21.221North 86o 26.702West

January 9, 2002

It’s been raining cats and dogs, and blowing like stink for days now. A procession of northers has been marching through, so in a lull between two of them we hightailed it back to French Harbor, where we know from experience that the holding is good, there’s a terrific supermarket ashore, a nearby internet cafe, and an anchorage between the mainland and two small islands that’s well set behind the reef, offering great protection on three sides.

A few days ago, while we were anchored in Calabash Bight, when the first norther hit at around 11 p.m., we were surprised to find ourselves dragging, for the first time in our lives. (Ironically, this month I have a feature in Cruising World, where I actually wrote that we’d never dragged anchor since we started cruising. Well, that’s a lesson not to tempt the fates by even thinking such thoughts, meanwhile uttering them in print!)

| | Ithaka and Baerne, anchored in the protection of Calabash Bight, Roatan, in the calm before the storm* * *|


In Calabash, we’d been anchored in 21 feet, settled into good mud for five days while we endured the passing of the first cold front. We’d weathered squalls up to 35 knots during the week in Calabash, so when we felt the wind pick up, we weren’t overly concerned. By then, we thought we were pretty well dug in. Winds reached 25 to 30 knots that night, and we had our dinghy hoisted up in a three-point bridle to deck level along our port side as a precaution against theft. The trouble is that a dangling dinghy adds a good bit of windage, and the boat swings more when the wind is strong. That’s what happened that night. We never should have hoisted the dinghy that night; instead, it should have ridden behind the boat on its painter. When we do this, Ithaka sits quite still and steady, even in winds twice that strong.

So add this to lessons learned this week. We dragged, probably because we were kiting around on our anchor too much and got slammed with a massive broadside gust that jerked us free. Luckily the folks on a nearby cruising boat happened to be in their cockpit and noticed our “change of position” even before we did and shined their spotlight on us. As soon as we realized what was happening, in the driving rain (no one drags in dryness or daylight) we quickly motored forward in the darkness and wind, picked up the anchor, and reset it. A tense fire drill, a confidence shaker, and another reminder of how humbling cruising always is.

| | Our dinghy hoisted up alongside, in its three-point bridle* * *| Now we’re back in French Harbor, another front is upon us, it’s 2:30 a.m., and I’m sitting up for my anchor watch as the wind whips through here at, let me check… yes, 35 knots. It’s a great time to take my mind off this howling wind, and answer a few questions from readers. When I awaken Douglas for his watch at 4 a.m., I’ll ask him to answer some too, and we’ll take turns until the wind dies down a bit and we can relax and get some sleep. Thanks for the feedback, and for helping us through the night.


Working and Cruising

Ed A. of Boston, Massachusetts, writes to ask about working in the Caribbean while cruising. “I’m hoping to head ‘out of dodge,’ as you guys say, next summer with my wife Barbara on our Prout 37. We can stay out for two years max, unless we can find work along the way, in which case we might be able to stay out longer. I’m an accountant, and my wife’s a teacher, but we’re also willing to roll up our sleeves and do different things. Do you hear of cruisers successfully working along the way? How hard is it to find work?”

| | Dave from Victoria, who does the weather every morning on the Northwest Caribbean Net, playing harmonica and banjo at the cruisers’ Christmas potluck dinner.* * *| _From Bernadette:_ We hear of plenty of cruisers working along the way. Friends on a South African boat stopped for several months in St. Martin. She worked at a tourist desk ($8/hr), and he did freelance electrical work on boats ($25-$50/hr)–”I could’ve had work seven days a week, if I wanted to,” he said. “There was loads of work in St. Martin.” Other friends stopped to work in the Caymans: she as a dental hygienist, replacing someone on maternity leave ($10/hr), then as a waitress ($5/hr+tips); he in a boatyard ($12/hr). In the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, we met several couples who were doing boat jobs, such as computer repair ($20/hr), canvas work ($15/hr), electrical ($20-$25/hr), sewing ($10/hr), diesel and refrigeration repair ($20-$25/hr). If you have a technical boat skill, and your own tools and equipment, you’ll be in high demand wherever you go. Other friends stopped in Spain, put their boat on the hard in a cheap marina for the winter, and went to France to take wonderful jobs managing a fancy lodge in a ski resort for the season (good salary + free skiing).


| | Greg from Carlin, playing guitar at the Christmas party* * *| We met a couple who worked for a year in Australia. He was an investment banker and got an interesting job in his field; the company who hired him took care of getting his official working paperwork approved. They enrolled their two children in a local school, continued to live on their boat, made good friends at work, and considered it a highlight of their circumnavigation.

Some cruisers try to sell their own crafts–notecards, screen-printed T-shirts, original art and jewelry–but no one’s making too much that way. Artistic endeavors may work better in the Eastern Caribbean, where there are more shops and galleries. Folks tell us there are more job opportunities and better pay in the Eastern Caribbean, because that’s where all the tourists, hotels, and megayachts are, and so that’s where the money is.



Marcus A. of San Fransisco, California, wrote to say that he cruised on the Pacific side of Mexico in 1995 and 1996, and wonders why Douglas wrote in a recent Log that the mordida (bribes to officials) is common. “I never felt like I was being asked for mordida,” he said. “Do you really have firsthand experience or is this another of those tales that gets passed from cruiser to cruiser until it seems as though this is something expected everywhere?”

| | Cruisers who came to the Christmas Day potluck party in Oak Ridge made wonderful delicacies, and traditional favorites. We dinghied over from Calabash.* * *| _From Douglas:_ We have firsthand experiences. We’ve been hit up directly in Honduras, Cuba, and Mexico. In Honduras recently, we were sitting with other cruisers and a friend mentioned that it cost $30 to check in here; we’d been charged $50. Another fellow mentioned that when he asked for a receipt for an additional $10 per person charge, the $10 fee was dropped. In Mexico, when Bernadette took a taxi back to the Cancun airport to retrieve some delayed luggage, she had to reimburse her taxi driver for the $5 _mordida_ she watched him pay directly to a policeman who’d followed and stopped the taxi on the road outside the airport as they were leaving with the bag. It’s usually a $15 half-hour taxi ride from Puerto Juarez to the airport, but it can cost up to $40 for a taxi from the airport back to Puerto Juarez. So Bernadette had hired the driver for the round trip for $25. It turns out that taxis can drop off at the airport, but unless they’re part of the “mafia” (the frustrated driver’s word) they can’t take people away from the airport without some _mordida_ to the police. In Havana, Cuba, at Marina Hemingway, three different officials asked for “gifts” of money to make the process go smoothly, and whispered that it would be “a secret between us.” (The most obese of the lot casually picked up a plate of chocolates off our table and emptied them into his pocket!) In the small bays along the Cuban shore, where the guards sometimes had neither carbon paper for their triplicate forms, nor diesel fuel for their launches, they were as honest as the day is long.

So, what should you do to avoid the problem? First, find out the proper fees from other cruisers before you go to the immigration and port captain offices. This is easily done by asking on the SSB net, or by taking your dinghy over to ask someone on another boat already in the anchorage. Then, bring that exact amount, pull it out with authority when the time comes to pay, and politely ask for a receipt. If they insist on more than you think is correct, you can refuse, pay, laugh, or haggle. But these dudes have the ability to ruin several hours of your finite existence. My preference is to take the theatrical approach. If I think the guy’s pulling a number, I clutch my chest as if to grab my heart, moan loudly and fall to the floor howling and writhing. More than once this has saved us a few bucks and provided a face-saving way out for everyone. If it can’t be finessed with impromptu theatre, then I don’t see that we have any choice but to pay the extra few bucks.

Adjustment Time?

“My husband and I are less than six months from departure day,” writes Jan M. from Seattle, Washington. “We plan to be gone for a year–British Columbia to Mexico–then re-evaluate. How long did it take you to mentally adjust to being cruisers and not just on vacation? And what impact, if any did being in confined space have on your relationship? The closer May 23 gets, the colder my feet are getting.”

| | Bernadette with a Mayan figure at the ruins of the spectacular Mayan city of Copan, Honduras* * *| _From Bernadette:_ The twenty-five-million-dollar questions. It took no time at all for Douglas and me to feel like cruisers, because everything on the boat began to break almost immediately–mostly due to OE (operator error)–and this gave us a rather shocking graduation from vacation mode into cruising mode. It actually took us a little over a year to get settled into our roles on the boat, and until we did, and until we got a little more confident in ourselves and our abilities, we put ourselves under a lot of stress; voices were raised and feelings were hurt–which was very different than our relationship on land. Sometimes, frankly, we wondered if we were cut out for this cruising life at all; at one time or another, one or the other of us felt like throwing in the towel and relocating to a nice little house with a garden. We’re fortunate that we had the option to stay out longer than a year, take a break during hurricane season, GET OFF THE BOAT for a while, travel inland, and regroup.

While we backpacked around Guatemala, we had a blast, things fell into perspective for us, and we began to miss many of the rewarding aspects of our onboard life–the frequent feelings of accomplishment; the solitary beauties unique to our on-the-water perspective; the cozyness of having our home with us, our own healthy food, our stuff; and the excitement and anticipation of landfalls–even after a mere daysail to the next port. The kinks that had seemed huge diminished, and we began to laugh about them. Now we’re more than halfway through our second year and the differences are huge. We’re more our old selves–more peaceful and happy aboard Ithaka, and having much more fun together.

That said, cruising and living in a confined space has had both positive and negative impact on our relationship. On the positive side, Douglas and I have shared intense experiences now that will bind us forever–adrenaline dramas from which we’re lucky to have escaped intact, magnificently beautiful sights we’ve encountered by ourselves together, pride in each other’s growth; hard work we’ve sweated through as a team, great hilarity we’ll always be able to remind each other of. On the negative side, cruising can also accentuate the worst traits in people and magnifies them in inverse proportion to the length of your waterline. It’s difficult to tolerate the foibles of a loved one who’s in your face all day and getting on your nerves. In our first year, Douglas would sometimes get far too anxious, and then lose his temper with me–an ugly thing. Usually, I’d set him off if I was too casual about something important onboard–another ugly thing. Then I’d get overly emotional, and cry, which irritated matters further. All this was compounded by the fact that for many months we were on nervous alert about the reefs and the navigation, and didn’t think we knew what we were doing. Which was also true! Cruising is a constantly humbling experience.

| | Artifact from Copan Ruinas* * *| I spent a great couple of hours the other day chatting to an Italian woman named Elena who was cruising Honduras with her husband. First, they’d spent three years working, living aboard, and refitting their 42-footer in the States. Then they’d sailed from Florida to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and now Honduras. They’d been out less than a year. “I don’t love it like I thought I would,” she confided. “I’m not sure if I’m cut out for this. I always feel so incompetent on the boat. I hate that we’re snapping at each other all the time. David has gotten so critical.”

David, apparently, has his heart set on a circumnavigation, and is pushing Elena to go through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific this year. “The other day, I told him that I thought I wanted to stay in the Caribbean for another season, relax, and see how it goes. Long passages still petrify me. He said, ‘I can’t believe you’re throwing away our dream!’ No, my darling, I thought, it’s YOU I’m thinking of throwing away!”

Elena was still into cruising; she just wants to slow the pace a bit. She’s a sweet, smart, and feisty person, and David’s a great guy who’s doing his best to learn a lot of complicated new things. The pressure is great. As long as they give it time, they’ll find their groove and have the adventure of their lives. I told her that for us, year two is completely different than year one. Most cruisers we’ve talked to tell us it was that way for them too: that year one can be a bitch, but that in time your roles become clear and you accept them. You get through enough scrapes and close calls that you start to gain a bit more confidence–like our dragging episode the other night. You find you’re laughing more. You get to know and trust your boat, and as you move farther away from the States, everything becomes more interesting. You remember, again, why you married each other.

Diesel, Gasoline, and Water

Ossie P. from Yipsilanti, Michigan, wrote to tell us he and his wife are on their one-year countdown before going cruising on their Cabo Rico 40. “No one at work knows yet,” he said. “We’re so excited, and your Log Of Ithaka has helped us to anticipate some of what our first year might be like and what we need to think about. One small thing: How easy is it to get diesel fuel, propane, gasoline, and water in the Western Caribbean?”

| | Douglas dinghies over to Baerne in the pounding rain that followed the passing of the cold front.* * *| _From Douglas:_ It’s easy. We carry two 20-gallon propane tanks, and we’ve never made it to the bottom of the second one. Even the smallest villages have a way of getting propane, because so many homes use it. There’s generally a fellow with a pickup truck who comes through once a week and collects bottles, takes them for refill and returns either at the end of the day or 24 hours later. It’s a wonderful scene lining up with tanks, and a nice way of meeting local people.

Good drinking water has been easy to find whenever we’ve needed it. We always purify non-chlorinated, land-based water with 1 1/3 teaspoons of bleach for every 10 gallons. Rain water goes directly in without treatment, but we run everything through charcoal filters.

We top off the diesel whenever we reach a larger town, and we strain every drop through a three-screen Baja filter, but they tend to be slow and can irritate the pump jockeys. So generally we don’t fill up directly at the dock. We end up dinghying in to fill jerry cans, lug them back to the boat and filter there. Granted it takes longer, but I’m always made happy to see the gunk it prevents from getting into the system. Besides, its not like we have something more important to do.

We carry 18 gallons of gasoline for the outboard when we know we’re going to be out on the cays for several weeks and using the dinghy for long runs through the reefs every day. There’s no gas out there, but you can always find it in seaside villages. Lots of people in these parts live by motor-skiff, and for that you need fuel. The other day in Oak Ridge, Honduras, I went to fill up our gas tanks before heading out for a couple of weeks of reef time. All along the southern shore of Roatan, in every bight and village, while there are no Shell or Exxon stations, there are plenty of small stilt houses with “gasolina” painted on the door. You pull up in front, tie off the dink, hoist your gas tank or jerry cans onto the dock, and carry them inside. At the one I went to, about 12 foot by 12, inside there were three, blue, plastic 55-gallon drums, and a 60-something black woman sitting cross-legged on top of the middle one. There were also dozens of rum bottles. She sold fuel mixed with the standard 50-to-1 ratio of oil, or “no mixed yet.” Cost was either 50 or 48 limperas (a little more than $3) a gallon.

| | Stilt houses line the shoreline on the south coast of Roatan. For centuries, people have built their modest little homes over the water to simplify plumbing, and relieve the problem of no-seeums–which are relentless ashore in the Bay Islands.* * *|

“How much gasolina you a-wantin’ today, brother?” she asks me.

I show her the tanks, and she holds up the oil bottle, eyes it like a thumb before a painting-in-progress, and drips a bit into a slew of empty rum bottles. Then, she fills the bottles and puts on the caps. To get a flow going, she sucks on the four-foot plastic hose and quickly inserts it in the first bottle. From bottle to bottom there’s some spillage that drips through the wide cracks of the floor into the water below. She laughs: “I radder be losin’ a few drops than a-swallowen ’em. You know whad I’m takin’ boot?” She puts a red cap on each bottle she fills. Then, one by one, she takes a cap off, puts it in her apron, and pours the contents in my tank and jerry cans. When she’s all done, she counts up the bottle caps and says, “Brother, you a-buyin’ 16 caps here of the mixed. That be 400 limps.”

She’d seen my quizzical look as I watched her eyeball the oil and gas mix. As I stepped in the dinghy she grinned a big one. “An brother, don’t be worryin’ none boot whedder this gas be mixed right. Ain’t no one burnt up der mutter buyin’ gas from me. We aall lives on gas roun’ here. If I be burnin’ da engines, no one be a-buyin from me no more. Go on now. Bye-bye to ya.”

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