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Sailing Totem: Uncertain Cruising Plans

The ongoing pandemic continues to create uncertainties for a sailing family, but COVID restrictions don’t stop them from visiting friends and relatives back in the States.

September 8, 2021
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A new chapter opened upon returning home to Totem from a stateside road trip. There are some knowns; there are many uncertainties. The visits to hug family also compelled us to answer, “What are your plans?” many times. Ruminations on cruising plans for the South Pacific and Caribbean are below. But first: a catch up on our crew, with reflection on the therapeutic mix of good times and reconnections from miles north of the US/Mexico border.

Family News

We got to see Niall! Our crew converged at my father’s home on Bainbridge Island for a few precious days. Then Niall was off to Alaska to finish work with UnCruise Adventures. It’s a boat kids dream job. In a few days, he’ll be flying to Germany for a (senior year of college!) fall semester program.

gnocchi
The “kids” made us gnocchi Behan Gifford
UnCruise Adventures
Niall with his mates on “the WAV,” MV Wilderness Adventurer: thanks to kaidiver for the shot! kaidiver

Our family reunion is a card tournament. Or is the card tournament a family reunion? Every July, save last year, we meet in Bellingham to play vicious games of Chicago Rummy. Cash is involved. So are margaritas!

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Card game
More cards with my father and brother. Travel highlights how bad my selfie/groupie game is. I don’t even have a game. But can play cards! Behan Gifford

The event was fun as always, but too short, and left me sad that we didn’t have more time with extended family. Not complaining though, because it sure beat the heck out of not seeing them. And my father now has his name inscribed on one of the perpetual trophies! Alas, it is the Turkey prize for last place. But many inscribed here are later on the perpetual winner’s trophy.

winner’s trophy
His name, immortalized with the turkey Behan Gifford

We played many rounds of cards (sense a theme?) at my dad’s kitchen table. There was time to catch up with old friends, the kind where you can pick up again without skipping a beat. And I got to see my mother smile, even when I didn’t hear my name.

Bonus visits touched every sense with the glorious Pacific Northwest summer: the looks and smells and tastes. My aunties in the San Juan islands welcomed us with Dungeness crab fresh from their traps. Paddling near their home, inhaling the briny low tide, I felt nostalgic for our years here. Jamie reminds me I like warm climates. It was strange wearing trousers.

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On the way north, we routed via cousins in Salt Lake City, and cruising friends in Idaho.

The road back was via my Aunt & Uncle (and more cousins) in Bend. I am grateful for the time and the hugs and the reconnecting. It’s hard to get enough. Uncle Niall – yes, Niall’s namesake – is 98, and served in D-Day. If I make it to 96, I hope I’m as sharp as my Auntie Mum.

kayaking
Paddling over kelp beds, seals fishing the rocky shoreline scooting past. Behan Gifford

Most of the trip back to Mexico was in smog from wildfires. Reaching Las Vegas, we could finally see more than a short distance – buildings on the Strip fading near sunset.

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Vegas
Still hazy in southern Nevada: the Vegas strip not so flashy in the smog. Behan Gifford

Near Term Plans

Work continues on Totem. Priming complete: We’ll look to move to the Cabrales paint shed for final painting once Jamie’s awesome swim step project on the transom is done. And so, we slide back into shipyard life. Yesterday, that involved bringing the yard’s security dog, Bonita, to the vet for a checkup.

Kids with Bonita
Tring to convince Bonita to get in the car Behan Gifford

Annapolis! In October, we are booked for the Annapolis Boat Show: It’s on! Jamie and I plan to teach in Cruisers University. All Cruisers U participants must be vaccinated and remain masked on site. I’m looking forward to it, although social distancing will pain me as a natural hugger! The show is a great time to see friends, old and new, and we love the TRU crew meetup.

Cruising Plans

Cruising plans are fuzzier. Is it possible to make cruising plans given all the uncertainty? It is. When I scroll through Noonsite’s awesome mega-list of country status, most now say open. Yes–Open! On their curated list for cruisers, 44 are currently closed, but 109 are open. Here’s another way to put it in perspective: in the 48 countries encompassing our circumnavigation, only eight are currently closed.

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Future gazing is dangerous lately, but here’s a view for setting out in North America currently.

Caribbean Cruising This Winter

Juggling a changeable series of restrictions and entry fees/testing requirements takes some planning. But mostly, the Caribbean is open, even holdouts like BVIs. But even this past year, friends had a great season in the western Caribbean. A number of our TRU crew had a blast in the eastern Caribbean islands. They just moved less, or sucked up the cost of moving.

The simplest way this plays out, for those with restriction/regulation fatigue? Fewer clearances and longer stays, which is what seems to organically occur to most cruisers anyway. And for those that need to be on the move, then maybe skewing plans towards countries where a single entry means more coastline/islands/bays to explore, like St Vincent & Grenadines assuages the wanderlust while mitigating the hassles and expense.

South Pacific Sailing In 2022

Among all popular world cruising grounds, the South Pacific is the only one which remains overwhelmingly shut. Thanks to Delta, it seems just as unlikely to re-open now as it did in January: small, vulnerable countries have no incentive to tempt variants. Only Fiji is open. Fiji, where COVID cases are higher than ever.

Port closings
Current situation: no easy options after Fiji. How much will this change in the next year? DPAM

In the current situation, there are no easy options after Fiji. How much will this change in the next year?

Don’t boats arrive in French Polynesia? A few; not many. French Poly has remained officially closed for sea arrivals since March 2020. At times, DPAM (maritime authority) has accepted applications to allow transit arrivals. Since February 3, 2021, applicants must demonstrate an imperative need, a “motif imperieux,” to be approved.

This imperative need is fulfilled in three ways: 1) overriding personal or family reasons; 2) an emergency health reason; 3) a professional reason which cannot be postponed.

Transit conditions
This full document is available online to plug into Google translate. Behan Gifford

It’s a high bar, and one which touring cruisers overwhelmingly don’t meet. Unfortunately, “Experiencing the annual marbled grouper spawning in Fakarava” or “Taking surfing lessons on a perfect Society Islands wave” will not be interpreted as professional reasons which cannot be postponed, much as I wish them to be. Hopefully the bar lowers!

When Caribbean boats chatter about planning to go, I wonder if planning actually means spit balling over Kaliks in the cockpit vs. actually doing the work of researching the route. Unfortunately, it also means some straight-up intentions to deceive, such as a fake emergency “forcing” arrival. You can guess what I think about those folks.

I’m grieving the probable loss of our South Pac plans. Jamie and I have time, and could go next year or five years from now! But at ages 19 and 17, we feel the clock ticking with Mairen and Siobhan aboard.

While we hope things will change for the better in the South Pac, but we’re pragmatists, so are looking more at where we can go than where we can’t. I still daydream about big passages to Hawaii, Guam, and then the Western Pacific and Asia. Who knows what will happen!

Dreamscape routes

Hawaii/Guam are open to us now… and with hopes for a southern route to follow. But another Plan B is exploring more of Central America. We’d need to get cracking on shipyard projects for that seasonal timing to work in ‘22, though! We’re not interested in spending lightning season in Costa Rica or Panama. Maybe El Salvador?

And if all this means I get more family hugs in?

#Winning!

Cards with aunties
What, cards AGAIN? hahaha! No opportunity missed with my awesome aunties. Behan Gifford

Grateful to love and be loved by these wonderful humans: the hardest part of the trip was wanting more time with them.


Should Cruising Plans Be Postponed?

Heck no! The qualities that make cruising a fulfilling way of life haven’t changed. We can have amazing experiences, meet interesting people, try delicious new food, and build great memories – even if it’s not our Plan A (or even Plan B) route. Even if it means fewer border crossings due to cost/hassle.

Namibia
One among countless great memories: trading with fishermen in Namibia Behan Gifford

There are always reasons not to go cruising: to postpone it a year here, a few years there. People who probably weren’t ever going to go anyway can latch onto the pandemic for the current excuse.

Still wondering. Check out the Salty Dawg Cruising Association’s Cruising in the Time of COVID webinar on Sept. 22. I’m hopeful they will have useful information to guide individual decisions.

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