Sailing Totem: Mail Call!

Challenges with packages highlight cruiser priorities.

September 5, 2019
sailboats anchored off deserted island
No mail service anywhere near here. Behan Gifford

The instant gratification of click-to-buy for next day delivery disappears faster than steak at a potluck when you go cruising. An hour’s drive from a mailbox at the US border drives this point home: whether it’s boat parts or a care package, getting a delivery overseas can be tricky. Shipping costs more, receiving is less certain, and customs may complicate matters. What do we do when we just have to get something shipped?

As frugal cruisers, the first option we investigate is the security of national mail services. But in many countries – like here in Mexico (pop. 128 million) – it’s not dependable. Like many places, mail is often inexplicably delayed. Another is Malaysia: below is one of the only pieces of personal mail I received in many years, a valentine from my friend Charlotte enclosing pictures of her daughters. It reached me in Malaysia in April about two months after it was mailed.

The next choice for package delivery is an international courier service like DHL, or UPS, or FedEx. You pay for security. Or do you? Some couriers work better in a given country than others. Their in-country operations (cruiser coconut telegraph) will help determine which service is best to use.

envelope under enclosed letter and photo
Precious cargo: this letter took two months to reach Malaysia from the US Behan Gifford

Then there’s the question of – what’s your address? Not obvious when the closest match is #3 coral head, north end of Mystery Bay, just before the pass. Marinas are typically a dependable option, with the presumed quid pro quo of booking a berth for a night or three. Call ahead to confirm, though: coaching clients of ours were recently disappointed by a marina in Sausalito that wouldn’t hold a package…so their plans changed to a sweet anchorage near a helpful friend ashore.

Secure mailboxes can be rented occasionally. Our Australian friends hauled out nearby are currently satisfying months of pent-up Amazon wish-list items with shipments to a “virtual mailbox” service called, where for $10 they can get more than two dozen packages over the course of a month. When using a courier like FedEx, there may be a depot or storefront where you can collect parcels. This may be the most dependable option of all, as it doesn’t leave their system until it’s in your hands.

The old-school way is to have mail held at the nearest post office with the label ‘POSTE RESTANTE’ – literally, “remainder post” – but the availability varies, and best to confirm in advance. Having seen security in a few postal outlets, this is my last choice. Unless, that is, it includes a hike to the top of a mountain on Saint Helena, where a mailbox with avian caretakers is perfectly secure.

excited children opening package
Personal delivery: crew Ty arrives in Madagascar with treats for the kids from his family and their grandparents Behan Gifford

Our favorite method is to have a visitor bring it in their luggage. Cruisers help each other out this way, too: when my cousin flew to visit us in Bora Bora, she carried a windlass motor for another boat in the anchorage – a meaningful chunk of her luggage weight allowance, for the new best friends we’d met a few weeks before.

Customs adds further complications, and advance research is required. You may need an agent, or advance paperwork to avoid delays and fees or fines. Many countries, but far from all, facilitate “yacht-in-transit” deliveries without charging duty. Even then there may be paperwork and other hurdles: getting watermaker parts in Seychelles took three visits to the post office, two trips to the airport, and at least eight hours of bus rides. On the other hand, we got to try a great new food dive and met some interesting people along the way to duty-free importing.

kids gathered around mountaintop mailbox
Mailbox at the top of Diana’s Peak; St Helena, South Atlantic Behan Gifford

Back in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, one of the reasons we decided to haul out here this summer is the easy access to the USA for ordering boat bits. It’s about an hour to Lukeville, Arizona (pop. 61), where a gas station — yes, a gas station — is happy to hold your package. Cruisers quickly learn that the USA is just about the best place in the world for affordable, timely access to quality products. For us and others here in the shipyard, this means the supplies to do a job right.


Does this all sound like a hassle? It pushes us to separate needs from wants pretty quickly, and that’s just fine. We went cruising to live more simply; to find fulfillment in everyday experiences, and not shiny things – unless it’s the inside of that abalone winking up at me, from a coral head just north of the pass into Mystery Bay.


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