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Sailing Totem: Where Border Crossing is Easy

The Totem crew reflects on life and travel in a time of COVID during an epic road trip north.

November 3, 2020
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Ready to leave
The road trip begins! Behan Gifford

The tyranny of the sock has returned to our crew. We have road tripped from Mexico back to the Pacific Northwest, and it is cold! Family pulled us back; we’ll spend most of the month of November back on Bainbridge Island with my father. Our travels were unfettered, and border crossing easy. We had over a thousand road miles to contemplate this freedom, as border crossing is complicated by COVID in so much of the world.

Getting into the USA

During October, we drove north to Phoenix twice from where Totem is hauled at the Cabrales Boatyard in Puerto Peñasco. Clearance (for US passport holders) is a breeze; never more than a few minutes wait at the Sonoyta/Lukeville border. CPB checks passports, has a couple of questions about our home and our plans, then waves us through.

What about boats: can they get in as easily? Not a single boat we know of has been turned away. Officially, boats arriving from specific COVID hotspots and Schengen (most EU) countries are barred from arrival. But that’s arriving from those countries, vs vessel flagged / crew being nationals of those countries. But homework is required for non-US-flagged boats, because some ports (e.g., Miami) have reportedly not issued cruising permits. US border restrictions are not uniformly applied on land or sea.

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Lukeville, AZ
Looking at the US wall for the border crossing at Lukeville, AZ Behan Gifford

Getting back to Mexico

Driving over the border is even simpler. This corner of Sonora where Totem is parked is a tourist zone, so unless we get the unlucky red light at the border—meaning, pull over for a customs inspection—we drive right through with a wave to the official. No passport checks. No questions. Nothing. ¡Bienvenido a México! Will it be as easy later in November, when we return? One hopes. As a precaution, we have the port captain’s clearance and Totem’s vessel documentation; I don’t think we’ll need it.

For boats, Mexico has never closed to cruising arrivals at any time during the pandemic. Repeat: Mexico has never closed to arriving boats during the pandemic. For some reason, there is misconception swirling around this—at least three people in the last few weeks expressed their perception that boats could not enter Mexico. WRONG, and not just now, but at any time so far this year.

On the road

The road trip was a rush north in some ways: the raisons d’être for our visit is to be with my dad for surgery, and spend time with him. When the date was moved up, so was our travel timeline. The procedure is minor, but what’s minor when you’re 85? The time with him is because we can: in the current pandemic environment, I don’t feel comfortable flying. Not for my father (who would love to return to visit us in La Cruz again), not for us.

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Dia de Muertos
I’m sorry to be missing Dia de Muertos this year. Behan Gifford

For our teen daughters, it’s first time they’ve traveled to spend time in the States since… I have to think about it, for a minute. While Jamie and I have had a few trips, it’s been about two years for them. Culture shock is real. “Everyone is going so fast!” Well, our life is definitely one of slow travel and slow mode. Our reverse culture shock sinks in, tempered by rolling landscape, spiked with occasional hostility—like the gas station attendant in Oregon telling a coworker who upset a customer she “should have coughed on them.” We found another gas station.

COVID-era road tripping

Safety: check. My dad’s age and health mean we have to be careful not to bring a virus to his doorstep. Forced by our return to civilization in Peñasco to think through precautions and risk mitigation, we had a good warmup for traveling. In the car with a duffle of clothes and tote bags of gear was a trug for tools of the COVID trip: gloves, KN95 masks, hand sanitizer, alcohol spray, wipes.

Food: check. We anticipated avoiding restaurants. Just enough snacks (trail mix in bulk, wasabi peas). Water bottles. A bag of apples and loaves of sliced bread with jars of jam and peanut butter would make meals on the go. Except… I forgot a utensil for the spreads. FAIL! Lunch on day one was Cheetos and apples instead, but the kind of in appropriate treat to appreciate? And then there was the irresistible (for me) lure of In-n-Out burger’s drive-thru…

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Entertainment: check. Mairen and Siobhan were in charge of the mixtape and podcasts. We sank into the gory history of royals in Noble Blood, paired that with a musical about Henry VIII’s wives, and listened to a bare minimum of news while the scenery rolled by.

Nature’s call: check. This is a tad more complicated for our women passengers, so to the horror (but function) of our daughters I bought a “urinary device for women” called pStyle for easy, standing relief. Recommended by a friend… and a winner. I’m entirely uninterested in braving public restrooms right now.

Friends and touring

As soon as plans to road trip north were made, Jamie and I saw this as an opportunity to visit our mentor. Jim Jessie lives aboard in Alameda, CA, and we haven’t seen Jimmy since he and his late wife Diana visited Totem in Zihuatenejo…more than TEN years ago. Much too long! Jamie first met them aboard their Lapworth 48 Nalu IV on the docks of Dubrovnik, then Yugoslavia, in 1986…the beginning of a long friendship. Their invaluable support and guidance inspire the coaching work we do today.

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James and James
James and James; masks ripped off for a quick snap at the end of our visit. Behan Gifford
Delta
On the back of Nalu in the Delta; summer 2006. Behan Gifford

I grew up in a few localities, but San Francisco and the northern California landscape are cemented as my homeplace. The girls don’t remember much from when we passed through on Totem in 2008; this was a priceless opportunity to share some history. After bidding farewell to Jim, we came over the Bay Bridge (whoa, it’s DIFFERENT now!) into the city. Admiring the skyline and bay views on our way to Yerba Buena island, I began my family brainwashing program: “this is the most beautiful city in the world!” Winding through neighborhoods, down Lombard’s hairpin curves, around the corner at the bottom to drive by my childhood home on Chestnut Street. I wanted to ring the doorbell, but it wasn’t the time, and not just because of the tears in my eyes! I had countless flashes of nostalgia: where I went to my first movie, a childhood friend’s home, streets and neighborhoods that color the quilt of my early life.

San Francisco
SUCH A TOURIST! Irony: I used to give tourists directions daily when walking the dog here. Behan Gifford
San Francisco
Home sweet former home. Behan Gifford

My only regret was that we couldn’t spend more time, to check in and find a way to connect with old friends. Fortunate to intersect with a few. Possibly on the way south? Our plans are indefinite.

Marin headlands
Marin headlands in a late afternoon glow, they acknowledged that Yes, It Is Beautiful. Behan Gifford

Such are COVID era plans: indefinite. Our border crossings were simple, and this seems likely to continue between the USA and Mexico. Our goal to return to the South Pacific remains, but for 2021… it’s indefinite. French Polynesia remains accessible to boats, and Fiji has opened, but… then what?

covid cases
French Polynesia cases Source: Worldometers.info

Australia and New Zealand shut their doors hard. Heading to Hawaii for hurricane season is an option, but an unattractive one to us. Plenty can change between now and the optimal window to depart next spring, but with cases in French Poly taking off again and winter virus trends more likely to be worse instead of better (this from your resident optimist), we think the South Pac is off the menu for next year.

NEXT WEEKEND

Join us for TOTEM TALKS: the Shipyard Checklist. Next Saturday’s livestream talks about what we’re doing… and not, and how to avoid hardstand heartache! 10am Pacific / 1pm Eastern; Register here.

toy dump truck
Shipyard Checklist Behan Gifford

NOVEMBER 15

Behan presents the Women’s Sailing Seminar keynote, on the last of three days of classes and interactive sessions; there’s something for every level of sailing experience. Join the full event (Nov 13-15)!  Details here.

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