Tiptoe through the Graveyard

Link to Published Article: South African Adventure

My husband, John Daubeny, and I have been cruising through the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean over the past decade onboard our 50-foot cutter-rigged sloop, Ātea, choosing to explore the world by boat with our two children, age 7 and 9. Having just spent three years in the Indian Ocean, it was time for us to move on to new cruising grounds and we set our sights on the Atlantic by way of South Africa. Given the 40,000 nautical miles we’ve clocked behind us, you’d think the 1,500 miles we had in front of us would be another casual stroll through our aquatic playground, made easier as land would be visible all the way: We’d be watching the baobab trees of Tanzania, the pistachio plantations of Mozambique and the thorn bushes of South Africa slip past just five miles to starboard. With no wide open stretches of water to cross, we were in for a leisurely coastal jaunt with plenty of stops en-route. Easy, right?  

Wrong. We would be travelling along the Wild Coast to round the Cape of Storms to reach the Skeleton Coast. These names given by ancient mariners reflected the hazards ahead of us. Africa’s south coast has a high occurrence of weather anomalies and coastal hazards. With storms that build quickly and fog that rolls in blinding the coast from view, hidden shoals and reefs become death-traps for unsuspecting vessels. The South African coastline is notorious for its long list of maritime disasters: We would pass through the Graveyard of Ships where more than 2,500 vessels before us have been claimed by the sea, and countless more simply disappeared without a trace. If we were going to navigate Atea successfully through this aquatic catacomb, we needed to know what was hammering the nails into those old timber coffins. 

Rusty Nails and Failing Sails

This is where the Agulhas Current – the largest western boundary current in the world – plays a crucial role. This narrow band of fast moving water races along the eastern coast of Africa, pulling warm water from the Indian Ocean across the continental shelf before dropping south into the Southern Ocean. Pop into that stream and you race along the coast at whooping 10 knots. Timed poorly, however, that same slipstream turns into violent overfalls that have ripped apart the steel frame of 500-ton ships. How do you avoid the same disastrous fate? The key is knowing the answer to “How long do I have to reach my next safe harbour?” There is an established weather pattern that repeats: A nor-easterly wind slowly builds from a calm high pressure system as the next low approaches. A window of stable weather opens up, providing anywhere from a twelve-hour to four-day gap to shoot through before the pressure bottoms out, the next low arrives and the window slams shut with a vicious south-westerly buster that sweeps up the coast making conditions miserable for anyone who has stayed out too long. Understand that safe window and you should enjoy a safe trip around the southern tip of Africa.

To further complicate things, the 1,500 NM stretch of coastline has very few natural harbours. Once the skipper makes the call to head out to sea, ship and crew are committed to make the run between safe harbours within the weather window, a window that turns quickly and closes fast. Make a wrong decision and, at best, you are in for a very rough ride. If we were to transit successfully – and by that I mean with our ship and our souls intact – we would need a solid boat, a good plan and a reliable weather information. In our opinion, this was done by taking short hops within a very wide window of calm weather. Usually, you wait for wind. Along the South African coast, you wait for the pockets of calm between the wind.

You also wait until you can guarantee all critical systems are in working order. Our area of greatest concern was our 1965 Lister HRW4 diesel engine. Our last full service had been in Thailand three years prior and our stop-gap measures since then could only last so long; the saltwater pump needed priming at every start and the belts were stretched and on their final hours. Through love, luck and lube oil we’d kept her kicking but she could fail us at any moment. If this happened, we would be relying on the next two items on our maintenance list: A broken genoa roller fuller and a leaky hydraulic rudder ram. We were well aware that we were in some of the toughest cruising grounds with failing systems. As our engine belts stretched and broke and air seeped into the water pump, we placed bandage upon bandage hoping none of the calamities that had claimed so many others would fall upon us. Issues aside, we had to cover 1,500 nautical miles on a boat that moved at an average of six knots within three months – the clock was ticking and regardless of our issues we needed to get moving.

Tiptoe through the Ports

Understanding that our situation was less than ideal and being of mind that things never are, we shot out on our transit around the South African coast with two out of three conditions satisfied: A safe weather window and a good plan. A fail-safe boat would have to wait. We would hop marina to marina, visiting Richards Bay, East London, Port Elizabeth, Knysna and Simons Town along the way. Each stop offered a different slice of the African pie. I got sample-sized bites at each port, leaving me at the end of our transit with an un-satiated appetite and a craving for more.

Richards Bay

Richards Bay is the perfect base to explore the national parks and game reserves of South Africa, with a half dozen within a half hour drive from the marina. For the first time in a long time, our existence wasn’t defined by boats. When we pulled into Richards Bay, we took every opportunity we could to get as far away from the ocean as possible – into the interior, and into the game parks. Richards Bay is the perfect location to explore the many national parks and game reserves, and if you are in South Africa not scouting for The Big Five, you might as well go home and watch Netflix. Preferring the real thing, we spent almost all the time we were based in Richards Bay outside of Richards Bay. It was such an amazing experience for all of us, full of cheetah encounters, sparing giraffe, stampeding elephant, and territorial rhino. For the kids it was the novelty of watching zoo animals wander in mixed company free from restrictive enclosures. For John it was being able to get so close to some of the world’s most hostile creatures and survive to tell the stories. For me it was a return to my own childhood when Kenyan game parks were my playground. Richards Bay gave us the best of Africa in concentrate. 


Durban was never our plan. It was too short a hop from Richards Bay to make a transit worthwhile, and South African immigration were so difficult that the effort to clear in and out wasn’t worth the hassle. However, sensibility has never been my strong suit. I had a good friend there and I was determined to make a house call. In addition to a week of social reconnections, we got a chance to see a foreign town through local eyes – an opportunity worth taking in any instance. We got to play with locals in public pubs and private clubs. We got to play with pet horses and wild monkey and even wilder dogs. And the highlight, we got to play in the Drakensburg Mountains. “The Drake” rises above the eastern edge of the Southern African plateau and is the highest mountain range in South Africa, an escarpment that stretches 1000km along KwaZulu-Natal with impressive 3000m peaks, stunning river valleys and rugged cliffs. It was once home to the indigenous San’s people who lived in the valleys and foothills during the Stone Ages, and they left their mark through 2,500-year old rock paintings that remain to this day. We wandered through these caves and gazed at red and yellow stick-figures of age-old elephant and antelope. We gaped up at Giant’s Castle and Cathedral Peak, and we drove through the most intense lightening storm I’ve ever experienced. As the rain swamped the dirt roads and pelted the windscreen of the car blinding our surroundings from view, we were fearful for our safety as thunderbolts cracked through the sky and struck the earth around us. Fortunately, our tiny tin can of a car didn’t have a 50-foot high mast sticking into the air as a target and we survived the wrath of the angry gods.

East London

East London is a no-man’s stop where foreigners are warned against the high level of violence in the region and tourists are recommended not to visit under any condition, this was unfortunately not an option for us. We had a condition – and not just just any condition – we had an engine-critical condition that could jeopardise the safety of ship and crew if not sorted in an entirely different down to the graveyard kind of way. With our stretched engine belts flopping about like over-sized jandals, we motored slowly up the river and tied stern-to-stern with a small huddle of resident boats. We tucked up into a spot up the river that was beautiful and quaint , far from the reputation one the town just beyond.  What I can confirm is that East London is indeed not a place for outsiders. Unfortunately, “outsiders” was exactly what we were – and we weren’t just outsiders sitting on the outside. We were outsiders that needed to be on the inside — we needed to wander through the back streets of an unfamiliar, run-down, hostile town in search of good quality engine belts – something not stocked as a regular consumer item on the shelves of most supply stores. We were looking for a specific needle in a high-risk haystack. But it was a hunt we had to take on, as we couldn’t move Atea without it. Fortunately, the prize was secured and after a full day wandering around the dubious back alleys of East London, we were in possession of two new high-quality engine belts. As the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” After our time as outside-insiders in one of the most impoverished and violent parts of South Africa, we decided to heed Joe Kennedy’s advice and got going.

Port Elizabeth 

Port Elizabeth was said to offer a marina with a reputation for warmth and hospitality, so we made the PE Yacht Club our next port of call. In fact, it offered neither but served up cold beer and a good roast and that was enough to appease our cravings while we sheltered for the week. When the weather finally turned and settled, we were looking at a much shorter weather window, with only 48-hours to progress the 160 miles to Mossel Bay before the next SW winds came through. By then we’d discovered where to find the Agulhas Current and we would rely on it to cover the distance in time. Atea was showing the strain of the passage and near breaking point: The bearings in the genoa furler were too unreliable to risk putting out and the headsail pole was broken so we couldn’t hold the jib out to balance the mainsail and assist. The rust coming through the bolts on the headstay made putting any load on the wire a risk, as a break there would mean the mast would collapse. A small leak on the steering hydraulics meant that our steering could go at any time, and we had no backup. Atea was a wounded warhorse; at 34° south and moving along the southernmost edge of Africa with nothing but the Southern Ocean on our port side and the boat a state of disrepair, we felt exposed. The temperatures had dropped, leaving our maladjusted bodies cold and shivering. Having spent all of our previous years cruising in the tropics, we were unprepared and under-provisioned. We had none of the required gear to make sailing a boat in 10° degree temperatures a cosy affair: We had no foul weather gear, no long underwear, no beanies and no blankets. But we had whiskey and hot chocolate. For the alcoholic and the optimist in me, that was enough. For the kids, days filled with chocolate turned our hectic existence into heavenly bliss. 


In the most supreme irony, we motored over 30 miles in a rush to cover the distance from PE to Mossel Bay to get in before the weather turned, then abandon our plans 25 miles short of our intended destination. At dawn, just as the wind arrived, we hove-to at the entrance to Knysna in order to wait five hours for slack tide. We knew that Knsyna needed to be approached with care but we were blissfully unaware that the entrance is classified by many as “the most dangerous harbour entrance in the world.” It’s easy to see the merit of this claim with a channel only two hundred yards wide with an extended bar, strong tidal flow, cross swells, and a large rock smack dab in the middle of the channel. After a restful morning bobbing around in flat seas waiting for the tide, we had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand how quickly the weather conditions change. Within the span of an hour, a flat, windless day morphed into harsh 25 knot winds with building seas. By the time we turned our bows towards the Knysna Heads, waves were breaking across the entrance. Given worse weather was on its way, we decided we would time the sets and make a mad dash through the gap. 

We kicked the engine into gear and drove forward, knowing once committed there would be no turning around. Two more giant waves built behind us and pushed the stern up and the boat heaved forward as they rolled under us. “Please don’t surf!” I cried out as we felt the boat heave forward with each wave. We fought to keep the boat on the transit line and her stern to the waves – if we turned side-on we’d be done for. A final giant wave passed beneath us and broke like thunder only yards ahead. “This is it!” John hollered out as he pushed the throttle forward to maximum speed as we raced to get through before the next set. The burning smell of a hot engine and hot exhaust filled the air and we cursed Atea’s spongy steering and dodgy engine belts. If our systems failed… if the boat broached… if we misjudged the set… if anything went wrong at that point we would have ended up on the rocks. White water foamed on the boulders just yards off our port side. With Lucy roaring a deafening battle cry, we charged past the turbulent seas into the foamy calm beyond. The next set broke behind us as John eased back on the throttle and we looked at each other wild-eyed, hearts racing. “Hot damn! We made it!” It was the scariest crap-my-pants five minutes I’d ever experienced. It made Los Vegas’ thrill ride Insanity seem like a kids swing at a play park. 

Having travelled from the distinctly poor and rural province of KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape, we had arrived at one of the richest province in the Western Cape where 6.5 million inhabitants maintain a stronghold for the privileged white upper-class. The town of Knysna is situated on the country’s largest estuary, National Lake, and protected by the surrounding Outeniqua Mountian range. It is one of a collection of beautiful little villages along a modern and prosperous coastal highway, the well-known Garden Route, and a trip to the region isn’t complete without a drive down this beautiful corridor. It winds through dramatic scenery to wine lands, nature parks, forest trails, game reserves, and into the Karoo, a semi-desert where you can watch ostriches roam the plains by the thousands. It is a microcosm of decadence and indulgence where money oozed from the open wallets of its white inhabitants and the problems that beset the rest of the country were forgotten. After running about in our rental car “doing” all the things that you “do” in Knysna, we settled into the quaint yacht club with our hands on pints of beer waiting – as you do on a transit around the coast of South Africa – for the next weather window. Having passed through the Heads once, we were not going to budge until we had The Perfect Calm – when slack tide coincided with a blue cloudless sky, no wind and no swell. Just when the club was about to offer permanent membership (we were unsure if it was because we’d paid for it through the quantity of beer consumed or because customers started regarding us as staff), we got our three out of three. There was no weather window – conditions coming toward us weren’t ideal – but if we didn’t get out the gap when we could we’d be locked in again for the unforeseeable future. 

Simons Town

Our local weather forecast had advised us to expect winds building up to 35 knots on the approach to Cape Agulhas and suggested it was better to battle those conditions in the open ocean rather than on the approach to Simons Town. There are fearsome wind acceleration zones that roll down the Hottentots Holland Mountains which funnel the winds off the Cape Peninsula into storm force gusts at the exact moment a skipper is least able to manage it. Earlier in the season a fleet of highly-experienced international cruisers stretched their weather window too far and were caught in hurricane force winds on their final approach into the harbour. Crew from three separate boats had to be rescued by the local lifeboat. This was not a coast to push boundaries, regardless of how many oceans you have crossed.

As we made our way through increasingly grey and windy conditions, we maintained a conservative sailing plan and kept Atea reefed down to staysail only. The sinister and low lying Cape Agulhas extended into our path, pointing a spectral finger at us from under a dark cape – a beckoning command that has lured many ships to their doom. Cape Agulhas is the very southernmost point of South Africa, lying thirty miles further south than the more commonly-known Cape of Good Hope, but receiving less world-wide acclaim. While it is to the Cape of Good Hope where all international travellers head to in order to click their pics at the spot where “the two great oceans meet,” locally it is Cape Agulhas that is more feared. As the true southernmost corner of the continent, it is here that the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic meet – often enraged and hostile. We were nostalgic as we transited from one ocean to the other in steep seas and 35 knots of wind behind us, marking the end of our three-year Indian Ocean voyage and the the beginning of our Atlantic experience. Early the following morning, our weather plan having paid off, we watched the wind drop away as we motored the last 50 miles through a thick fog into False Bay. As we entered our final stretch, the fog lifted and the sun came out, and a pod of pilot whales guided us towards our final destination. With high spirits, we pulled alongside the dock at the False Bay Yacht Club and concluding our hopscotch through the graveyard of ships with a successful transit of The Wild Coast.


First and Last

Link to published article: First and Last

Tonga is, for both John and I, the first and the last of our great big adventure. Tonga in 2011 was our testing ground, to see if what we’d enjoyed separately would be something we enjoyed together. Tonga in 2022 is proof of that mutual passion, and all that lay between those years lies a rich tapestry of countless expeditions and unquantifiable experiences. Our new boat became our permanent home and into that existence we brought two children, a son and daughter, and over eleven years we visited 36 countries and transited three great oceans. Our Tongan trial had turned out to be a great success. 

We feel very fortunate that our very first country is also our last. Tonga was a busy tourist destination in 2011, both by land and by sea. It is a popular stop for cruisers on the route across the Pacific and it is a part of the Western Pacific loop. In typical years it also has an established tourist and charter industry, so sailing around the islands is often a bustle of movement and  crowded anchorages. This is how we remember our first visit all those years ago. In 2022, however, Tonga is a very changed place. Due to the pandemic in 2020 and a tsunami in 2021, Tonga sealed its borders to the outside world for the past three years. October brought big changes: Land and sea borders opened and international tourism resumed. For most cruising yachts, the timing was too late in the season to take advantage of the change in policy. For stragglers like us travelling toward the South Pacific later in the season, however, the timing was ideal.

We sailed into Tonga on the 4th of October, the fourth boat in three years. Rather than being one obscure yacht of many, this year we were one of few. Opposite to blending into the crowd, our AIS had been picked up and our arrival known before we even laid sight of land on the horizon. From that moment the effusive welcome began. “Ātea, Ātea. This is Vava’u Radio. Welcome to Tonga!” As we pulled into the customs dock, locals came out to greet us and as we cleared and set anchor, calls from the expatriate community were welcoming us in. The few fellow cruisers who proceeded us popped over to say hello. Tonga was a real homecoming amongst total strangers.

Tonga is a relatively small country, broken up into three regions: The lush limestone islands of Vava’u in the north, the picturesque low-lying coral islands of central Haapai’is, and the densely populated southern capital island of Tongatapu. Yachts typically go to Tongatapu for no more than clearance and the Haapai’is are generally under-rated and ignored, which leaves Vava’u as the popular destination of choice for tourists and cruisers alike; and there’s sense in this. Vava’u offers dozens of small islands to explore in a large sailing area protected from the ocean swell by a surrounding offshore reef. The deep water between lush limestone islands bring a stark contrast of colour in deep blues and greens, and moorings are available in designated anchorages for a small fee. What isn’t available is the more tropical setting of rich coral gardens and clear aqua waters; this is what the Haapai’is offer and a trip to this neglected central group is well worth the effort. In a normal season, the anchorages around Vava’u are crowded with tour boats, local charters and cruising yachts, all vying for an available mooring. The yachting season runs from May through to October, which fortunately coincides with the whale season when pregnant females come to deliver their calves and suitors follow to continue the cycle of birth for the next year.

It is for the whales that we made Tonga our destination this year, more so than the sentimental appeal of “closing the loop.” I knew that all our other cruising friends were in Fiji and the reunions and parties would be continuous, but Tonga held the chance of sighting whales. Choosing between nature or social, I chose the experience that would, for me, be irreplaceable. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with these gentle giants and the opportunity to be alongside them in the water is a rare one. We were late in the season so the chance of seeing whales was low, but I wanted to make the effort if the possibility was there. I was well rewarded. There were a few mother and calf pairs and escorts remaining in the protection of the sheltered waters. We could hear their calls as we snorkelled and watched them breech, roll and fin slap from our anchorage. To swim next to them was a beautiful experience: Tender, graceful, curious and relaxed. Mother guided calf to her side with the nudge of a fin, calf rolling over and around her mother’s bulk, a small body tucked under the massive head of its mother, and the intimate sight of a calf nursing as the two swam slowly in union. To be next to them, observer and observed, offered more than could ever be imagined.

When we weren’t with the whales, we were with the small community of cruisers that had quickly become good friends. Given the few boats visiting Tonga this year, every new arrival was celebrated by both cruiser, expatriate and local community. We joined church service on Sundays to listen to the wonderful booming song that marks a central part of the service, and we were invited to community meals that followed. We developed a warm rapport with the local expatriates whose businesses had been closed for years, and were taken under wing by a few who took us on a complimentary tour of the island and its landmarks. We joined forces as a cruising community, getting together for morning exercise, an early coffee, a lazy lunch and social dinners. We gate crashed private parties, where the hushed word of “pālangi…. pālangi… pālangi…” was whispered, labelling us in the Tonga language as white foreigners, before the doors opened to let us in. Apparently, as outsiders we weren’t on the invite list but warm hospitality had us quickly included.

The main town of Neiafu is a small strip that runs one vertical street and one horizontal street along the waterfront. By the end of the first day you’ve seen everything the town has to offer and know half the shopkeepers by name. Outside the village, everything is a spread of simple houses and rural properties. There is Kilikilitefua, the “wall of rocks” which was the product of a census that used to record the birth of the firstborn son of everyone family by adding a volcanic rock to the pile. There is the remnants of an old fort, protection for the community from attack by the waring tribes in the Haapai’is and Tonga Tapu. There are fresh water caves which supplied previous generations with drinkable water and there are ocean-facing caves where livestock were kept and sheltered, pinned in by the high tide, and there are saltwater caves that provide some exhilarating deep underwater entrances to enter through. A trip around the island is both an education on current culture and a lesson on its rich history. While the cruising grounds make Tonga a fantastic destination, the rich cultural heritage and shoreside services also offer much to explore.

We sailed into Tonga for the first time as a new couple on a new boat, and this year we sail out with a decade behind us and two kids in tow. The country symbolises the first and the last destination of our great adventure, but I should clarify: Tonga is the first and the last of this great adventure. A big change lays ahead of us as we pull into New Zealand and move ashore, and Ātea gets a long break from all the continuous miles she has carried us over. While Tonga symbolises the end of our time as long-term cruisers on Ātea, the adventure is definitely not at its conclusion. If Tonga teaches us anything, it is that the world is both behind us and ahead of us, and we are only turning a page in this great big adventure called life.

Link to Images: <a href="http://<iframe src="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fsvatea%2Fposts%2Fpfbid02pcHewN7eJ49J4J95Ex4ECTdPwXtFApXzdmuKZwZWJQMPSah64gutWbJw9X5fpcR9l&show_text=true&width=500&quot; width="500" height="695" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="true" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; picture-in-picture; web-share">Tonga

San Blas: A Taste of the Pacific

Link to published article: An Authentic Experience

Temperate, crystal clear waters to swim in. Palm-fringed, white sand beaches to stroll. An archipelago of over 300 unspoiled islands to explore. The painted face and bangled-arm of a tribeswoman selling the intricate stitched artwork of her ancestors and an indigenous community that repelled colonisation, banned international development and restricted mass tourism, people who hold firmly to their traditional roots. The San Blas islands are a living history, a preserved native culture, a protected archipelago; they are a different world from the remainder of the Caribbean cruising grounds and are as close as you can get to experiencing the Pacific islands without leaving the Atlantic Ocean.

Laying along the Caribbean coast of northern Panama, the San Blas islands stretch 100 miles along the southern Caribbean Sea between the border of Colombian and the Gulf of San Blas. Officially renamed Guna Yala by the Panamanian government in 2011, the majority of islands are small uninhabited islets and cays, and the 49 islands that are inhabited are generally occupied by no more than a family or two living on land passed down to them through the generations. Traditions runs deep within the Kuna Yala culture, and it would be fair to say it is the best preserved indigenous South American culture to this day. Subsistence fishing and coconut cultivation is the generate the main income, and sale of the unique layered fabric panels made by the Kuna women, the Mola, is also a large part of the economy.

The San Blas islands had long been on my A-list of destinations. Having lived there in the mid-seventies, I was far too young at the time to hold onto my childhood experiences of Panama, but my parents remembered our time there with great fondness. Stories of crash landings in Kuna territory on a broken bi-wing and semi-permanent face markings painted down my mom’s nose were two of my parents many stories. They’d sailed through the remote San Blas islands long before it became a popular cruising destination, where they were greeted by men in dugouts who offered fish, lobster and coconuts and woman who displayed their intricately woven Molas. They retold the stories with such vivid detail, making me yearn to seek out similar adventures. When Panama finally lay in front of us, I knew exactly where I’d be spending my time. The question was, what remained? Had the authenticity of the islands been wiped into the past, or had the Kuna truly succeeded in holding onto their tribal heritage? Would I walk in my parents footsteps, or would the adventure only live through their stories?

My turn was up the morning we sailed into the San Blas Islands and laid the anchor down in front of the Swimming Pool, a popular anchorage in the Eastern Holandes. Given the name, I knew I wouldn’t be experiencing the San Blas of my parent’s day. We shared the anchorage with one other boat, however, and that was a popularity I could accept. The water was still a clear, transparent aqua blue. The tiny islet in front of us had one traditional palm-built shack sitting under a crowd of palm trees. Out on the water a man sat in his wooden dugout fishing off the edge of the reef. “Mom, Dad,” I thought, “I walk in your footsteps!

I strung the hammock on the aft deck and eased myself in, set to soak up every morsel of my quiet, idyllic paradise. Tilting my head back to top it off with a sip of cold rum, I spotted a yacht headed our way. Behind that yacht, another, and another beyond that. My paren’t footprints were disappearing with every sail that popped up on the horizon. Within a few hours the anchorage turned into a crowded parking lot, my beautiful sandy island barely visible through the bimini of the boat that dropped anchor on top of us. Just before sunset a small dugout with a Kuna family slowly paddled towards us. Salvation. My dream had been altered but was still intact. I knew that the Kuna Indians held firmly to their traditional ways and had refused assimilation into the Panamanian culture. As the dugout pulled alongside I smiled broadly knowing my Spanish wouldn’t help but searching for a fish in the hold as our common goal. My smile was returned by an equally enthusiastic grin and, in clear and concise unbroken English, he asked for a $5 anchoring fee. Between my English-speaking Kuna host, my island view through the backend of another yacht and the keel-hung traffic jam around us, my hopes of experiencing my parent’s version of the San Blas were dashed. I would have to set my own footprints in the sand.

Shifting expectations didn’t take long, however, as there was plenty on offer within the San Blas regardless of its increased popularity. While there are many islands within the archipelago, there is a concentrated group of islands where most of the cruising happens. Follow the popular cruising guide, the Bowhouse Guide, and you will enjoy a social hub within a defined cruising circuit; tread out of that area and you have can experience a far more remote San Blas. There are still areas throughout the archipelago where time continues to stand still.

We were rarely alone as we sailed a clockwise course through the San Blas, as the islands are now an extension of the Atlantic cruising circuit. Charter and cruising yachts fill the anchorages throughout the archipelago and local tour operators run day trips for tourists out to the inshore islands. Panamanians have adjusted to the increase in tourism by running skiffs to many of the popular islands, offering a range of provisions from fruit and veg to beer and wine. Many of the Kuna have integrated with mainland Panama and now speak Spanish, and English to a lesser degree, allowing us to share a language and bridge the linguistic barrier. While forty years has brought many changes to the San Blas, some of those have made cruising the islands a more convenient and comfortable experience.

That said, while tourism has come to the San Blas, it is still very low-key. The Kuna have refused any large-scale development and the options for over-night accommodation are rustic, some as basic a hammock strung between palm trees. In addition, the handful of islands that offer this option are close to the mainland, restricting tourism to the majority of the islands. We had the unique opportunity to spend an afternoon with the ex-President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, when his helicopter landed on a small uninhabited cay near where our anchorage in the Eastern Holandes, providing us insight to some of the politics of the recent past. The ex-president discussed his campaign to turn the San Blas into “the next Maldives.” The Kuna, however, hold sovereign independence throughout the islands and have rejected attempts to develop resorts throughout the islands. It was not progress the Kuna wanted, and I realised then what a privilege it was for us to be able to travel throughout an area that had fundamentally remained so unaltered by outside influence. It may not be exactly what my parents had experienced, but it wasn’t far off it.

That afternoon showed me that my first assessment of a lost culture hadn’t been entirely on the mark. Clearly there were changes, but this two-hundred year old culture still had firm roots. Many of the dugouts had outboards, but square-rigged wooden canoes still sail throughout the islands. Kuna men still row up with their bilges filled with fish and coconuts, often accompanied by their wife and child selling molas for $40 a pane. To sit with these woman and look through the intricate stitch-work made me appreciate how much of the Kuna traditions were still very much a part of everyday life; molas are hand-stitched exclusively by women in their spare time between rearing children and household demands, and each meter-square piece can take up to a month or two to complete. While men have moved towards modern clothing, most women dress traditionally in a cotton wrap and mola blouse, a colourful headscarf worn to deter evil spirits. Their wrists and ankles are wrapped in multi-coloured beads and married women still wore the traditional gold nose ring and thin black line painted down their nose. Huts ashore we still very much replicas of the housing of their forefathers, and families still live on land that has been passed down to them through the generations. Some islands are no longer inhabited, but many are still run exactly as they have been for centuries.

We’d been warmly welcomed by all the Kuna we’d met, and a few of them allowed us a closer insight into their daily lives. One particular interaction stands out as we were invited to spend the evening with a Kuna family in their home. When we arrived, the head of house stoked the embers of the fire-pit and we were invited to cook with them. Their lodging was built as three separate huts, all made of palm fronds laid over a wooden frame and set on a sand floor. Hammocks were strung up inside the huts for sleeping, the kitchen was set up inside a lean-to and the sink was open air. Their companionship was relaxed and casual, and the evening thoroughly enjoyable. I didn’t leave with a piercing or painted strip down my nose as my mother had during her time with the Kuna, but I generously wrapped in beaded wrist and ankle bracelets which made me feel that I could experience an authenticity that is still inherent in the culture forty years on.

Nowhere in the Atlantic had I felt so close to an island nation with such a true sense of cultural identity; slightly modified but inherently intact. The key factors that made us draw the comparison to the Pacific is that the Kuna culture is completely different from that of the rest of the Caribbean, where islands have become either first world nations or are trying to become one. That development has been wholly rejected by the Kuna. As in the Pacific, you are guests to their island, and you come into a community that is largely unchanged for hundreds of years. They are both a substance culture, with strong family ties, adhere to tribal ways and obey the rules laid down by the chief. In comparison to the Caribbean, there are fewer boats, fewer charters and fewer tourists. For Atlantic cruisers who want a slice of the Pacific Islands, the San Blas offers the very experience on a small scale in the southwestern corner of the Caribbean.

Link to Images: <a href="http://<iframe src="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fsvatea%2Fposts%2Fpfbid0zosydCmrsFBxemg2SVBCGzKeie6CuV9fDqqd88D1YkDBtpu3Xiv3zS6tva9sTk9cl&show_text=true&width=500&quot; width="500" height="676" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="true" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; picture-in-picture; web-share">San Blas

Ey Ey Brother Shackleton 

Link to published article: Ey Ey Brother Shackleton

I’ve spent a notable time on the sea but don’t consider myself much of a seaman. Not in the nostalgic sense of the word – weathered old souls with salt-imbued rags who sit in old bars scratching their matted hair telling tales of their conquests and mishaps. Of course, I’ve had my share of adventures worth telling over a cold pint, but somehow I don’t feel I fit the mould. I sail a boat. I live on a boat. I raise my kids on a boat. I transit oceans by boat. But seasoned seaman? I don’t think so.

As I sat sipping a frothy pint in Peter’s Bar, with decade upon decade of captain’s hat (and the occasional captain’s bra) above my head, I felt like I’d finally earned that right. Peter’s Bar is as old as the volcano it is built on, currently run by its third generation of Sr. Azevedo, who continues to supply transiting mariners with more than just ale: for generations Peter’s Bar has been the sole support for ships and people passing through, supplying provisions and parts, mail collection and delivery, medical supply and local gossip. It might’ve taken me ten years, 55,000 miles and a few dozen ocean crossings, but I finally got it — that feeling of what it is like to be an old saltwort worth her lick.

Of course, having just completed a two-month passage was a factor. I didn’t really feel the gravity of what that meant until we pulled into Horta at the conclusion of our 60,000 mile trip from South Africa to the Azores and people gave their congratulations as we sailed in. We shook hands ashore with locals who already knew about us and were impressed by our recent time at sea. So, when I sauntered into Peter’s Bar and ordered a pint and sat down amongst the painted faces of patronage from generations past — Chichester, Montessier, Knox-Johnson — I felt that welling of pride. Yeah Shackleton, I gotcha bro.

After two weeks swaggering around the streets of Horta en simpatico with those cruising legends, it was time to refocus on the reason I spend all this time on a boat: To explore. For me the beauty of boats isn’t weather routing, reefing sails and clocking ocean miles. I like all that — particularly the ocean miles surrounded by the beautiful silence of that endless, endless sea. What I like most, above and beyond it all, is what lays at the other end. I like charting the destination and then rolling in and discovering the truth of a place beyond my ignorant expectation. Or often, my lack of expectation. Maybe my high school history told me more than just its geography, or perhaps the news has revealed some current catastrophe. But often a country means no more to me than a name on the map. Then I draw a line between where I am and where it lies. I point my boat in that direction and spend weeks watching the miles tick away as it gets closer. And then one morning, bam!, I am there on her shores — everything new and unknown and waiting to be discovered.

The Azores was like this for me. I’d heard of the Azores. Perhaps in the news. Perhaps in a lesson given by my 11th grade teacher. But I hadn’t learned about the Azores. I didn’t have any current knowledge of the Azores when I arrived but everything I was hearing on arrival had me itching to explore: volcanic craters, black lava pools, lava tubes, lava rock vineyards, the barren exterior, the lush interior, the bulls and the bull fights. Highlight after highlight — it was time to bring my modern-day explorer into action. I marched my kids around the streets and the countryside, to the museums and the cactus gardens and into every rocky lava-created attraction offered. They were as gobsmacked about its rich history at seven and nine as I was at forty-six: The sordid plight of the Sperm Whale and the island’s involvement in the near decimation of the species, its longtime influence in maritime history and its significance as a trade hub between Europe and the Americas, its ever bubbling and exploding volcanoes. How did I miss all that fascinating history? How cool to be learning about all of it now.

We focused our time in the seven islands that make up the Azores on four islands: Faial, Pico, Sao George and Terceira. Faial was a highlight in its volcanic highlights. We anchored in the main harbour and took day trips throughout the island from there. The north was wet, lush and tropical with dense forest, high altitude lakes and fantastic views of the island. The south was dry and developed, with the capital Horta as the economic and social centre. Town was a twist of small winding streets that led from the town basin to the hills with a fantastic botanical garden at the top of it. The architecture had the look of a quintessential small European mountain village with uniform architecture and colour, a mix of well-maintained homesteads and dilapidated ruins. The most recent volcanic eruption in the 1950s sent most of the population to America; many of the residents returned but a significant number of people had permanently resettled, leaving their family homes abandoned. The west was dominated by the dramatic Capelinhos volcanic crater and to the east the caldera. Running all around the island was a succession of volcanic lava pools, unique in structure and stunning in appearance.

Pico is a singular vocalic cone that juts out from the sea with cooled lava flow visible down its sides. There is a small harbour with a busy ferry terminal and swinging room for a yacht or two within. The island is know for its local wine production and tourists flock to the island to see its unique method of growing grapes: individual plants separated by a square fence made from intricately stacked lava rocks, protecting the hard earth from erosion and the plants from wind burn. We spent our day measuring 32,000 steps with the periodic pinch of grape and dip in the sea. Given two of our team have legs that measure 75cm in length, the fact that we marched around a volcano in the heat all day is something to commend them for.

From Faial we sailed for the long southern stretch of Sao George’s dramatic coastline. Hunkering down in a tiny one-boat harbour, we enjoyed crystal clear waters, a small local village and a forested mountainside that came alive with the sound of birdlife at dawn and dusk. There was very little to do in the five-shop village and so we spent our days away from the business that had defined our experience in Horta and enjoyed the quaint solitude of our little spot. We took a holiday and treated the boat as a pleasure craft and not a mobile home. We enjoyed slow mornings and midday swims, spent the afternoon amidst toys and tonic and ate our meals as picnics on deck. Life as a live-aboard cruiser can often be fraught with boat jobs and normal life requirements that leave little of the idyllic lifestyle. So it was with great pleasure that we put all tasks on hold and enjoyed the quiet, simple life for a change.

Our last main anchorage was off the southeast corner of Terceira. This became quite a social hub for us, reconnecting with several yachties we’d hung out with along the way and meeting several new ones in harbor. We rented a car and toured the island, wandering again down lava tubes below the earth and getting lost in the labyrinth of caverns of old extinguished volcanoes. The villagers throughout the island were clearly bull-centric, as each village had a central bull ring and many private estates had bullfighting training rinks and stables. This time of year would usually see half of Europe flocking to Terceira to experience the daily bull fights, done village by village and fought on the streets and beaches amid amateur bull enthusiasts and intimated observer. But this year brought only one professional show, done to bring funds into the Catholic Church and appease the demands for this centuries-old tradition. We were fortunate to be able to see the only fight that was put on for the year. While witnessing acts of animal cruelty is something I like to avoid, cultural traditions are a privilege to observe as a foreigner. Sitting amidst the enthusiastic Azorian crowd, we watched bull after bull be taunted to the dance of the skilled matador and the beauty of his trained horse, and enthusiastically joined in with the jeering, cheering crowd. 

I regarded the Azores as a mid-Atlantic rest stop in route across 4,000 miles of ocean but found it to be a remarkable destination in itself. The amount of cultural, historical, and geographical sites demand a dedicated amount of time to properly explore, and once done there should be time remaining to settle in with the ghosts of mariners past with a full pint and an empty schedule. After all, if you’ve made it across the ocean to get there, why not settle into the very same seat that Chichester, Montessier and Knox-Johnson occupied on their transit across the ocean. You earned it after all — you are one of them now. 

Photos posted on: Images

Two Sides of a Coin

Link to published article: A Lesson in Sharing

Our plan was the Caribbean at the end of 2020. The Canaries was intended as a quick layover in route to our rum cocktails, but even quick stops can result in well laid plans becoming obsolete. So it was for our season in the Caribbean, which was quickly bumped as soon as Gambia came onto our radar. I met a German couple while in Lanzarote who had spent time there a year earlier and their stories sent my excitement for coconut trees and tropical fish out the window — muddy river full of hippos and crocodiles? I’m in!

My time earlier in the season in the Western European Atlantic was enough to drive one reality to the forefront: I am in this cruising lifestyle to explore. Hanging out on non-moving boats gets boring quick. I’m not interested in a floating apartment, regardless of what country it is floating in. I live on a boat to travel and explore as many places as possible, and the more culturally diverse the better. As I debated the change in plan with John, I pointed out that all our favourite destinations have been those that were the least planned and the furthest off the beaten track. Gambia, a country that receives two to three yachts per year, was certainly that.

Barriers and Bridges

Including Gambia in a northern Atlantic circuit is not difficult, so I’m not sure why more cruisers don’t do it. It is only 300 miles southeast of the Cape Verdes and It is only 300 miles SE of the Cape Verdes and is an easy stopover to include between Canaries and the Caribbean. There are a few potential obstacles to be aware of, however, and it is important to understand these before making the decision to include Gambia in your route. 

For one, you must be prepared for a third-world experience. For a relaxed visit, you must have a flexible attitude and be able to find humour in the chaos. This is most evident on entry into the country in the bustling capital city of Banjul, where dust and dirt and noise dominate. The clearance process is confusing but the officials are pleasant, and the process can be sped up if you don’t mind greasing palms along the way. Of course, this is all done in the overt undertones of community support. At customs we were sagely informed, “The office has run out of coffee and the team doesn’t have enough money to buy any ahem ahem.” The port captain informed us that he was required to view the stores onboard the boat “but, cough, if you buy me a Coke I don’t think I’d have the time to drink it AND come out smile wink.” Immigration’s excuse was grand: “Our department needs its own boat. We are happy to accept a donation to help us towards that cause.” While I am morally opposed to paying bribes, it was an indication of the tight sense of community that was shown in every village we met along the way. It wasn’t greed that was at the root of the requests, it was the fundamental concept that everyone was responsible to support the whole. And so we paid the $3 coffee donation, bought the captain his $1 coke and slipped $5 to help buy a boat.

You will also have to accept that you will sail a minimal amount of time, if at all. I’d imagined The Gambia being an Amazonian-like river with endless exploratory possibilities. I envisioned sailing slowly up the river with the tide, however in truth there isn’t the distance between banks to make this practical. You’d need to tack as soon as you completed your tack, and continue running sails from port to starboard until you concede defeat and turn on the engine. We did sail, a little, but only when the wind was directly behind us and the tide was running with us. If you want to sail up the river, be prepared for a lot of waiting. Or just turn on your engine and go. 

While motoring may not be a significant disincentive for many cruisers, a 17’ meter bridge might be. The Gambia Bridge was completed two years ago and is the only road access for vehicles crossing the river for 300 miles; unfortunately, it also serves as a barrier to many vessels from exploring the upper reaches of the river. As the trip to Gambia is all about its upper reaches, if you cannot get under the bridge then it may not be a trip worth taking. In our case, we had approximate height of the bridge and approximate height of our mast with a meter wiggle room between them. When we approached the bridge we did so with extreme caution. This meant making our way slowly at the start of the ebb tide with myself sitting up at the top of the mast to keep a visual on our one meter gap. We were right to use caution, as our gap was actually a foot of clearance from the VHF aerial and it was an intense moment when I had to make the call to proceed or abort. Strapped to the top of mast, an error in judgement would result in more than just our boat suffering from a collision. 

It is only once you are on the other side of the bridge that the other factors become evident. It is here that the wider river turns into smaller creeks, offering secret hideouts to tuck into along the way. The options aren’t always obvious, as you have to know that the entrance to the creek gets shallow before it becomes deep again. You may see less than half a meter under your keel as you approach and may assume that it will only continue to get shallower, but hold your course and you’ll squeak past the entrance to watch it drop to ten meters as you head deeper into the tributary. At 2.2 meters, we often drew a line in the mud with our keel on our way into a creek to find it drop sharply to on the other side. You’d then find yourself nestled up tight amongst the reeds on a boat 15 meters long in a creek just 20 meters wide. Make sure you drop your anchor directly in the centre of the creek or you’ll find yourself bumping the mangroves on the rivers edge at the turn of the tide. 

With small creeks come small insects. We were told that we would need to keep our anchor light switched off at night otherwise we’d be walking on a carpet of moths on deck in the morning; we didn’t adhere as a boat on anchor without a mast-light seemed worse than assisting insect suicide. But best heed advice on the mossies. If you are not prepared for them, a trip through Gambia will be a trip through hell. Mosquitoes are not only present, they are vicious and the itch of their bite will last days. Fortunately, we had a three-tier netting system in place that kept the bugs out of the boat in a series of stages: Netting for the cockpit for the worst of times, netting for the hatches and companionway as standard use, and netting above the beds if barrier one and two had been breached. There wasn’t a night we weren’t thankful for the sanctity of our impenetrable fortress.

Food and water must also be planned for before a transit up the river. As the river is muddy all the way up its reaches, using a water-maker it is not advised unless you have a bilge full of filters. We filled our 1400-litre tank with water from the community well before departure and used water sparingly up the river; we washed our bodies, clothes and dishes in river water and used our tank water exclusively for drinking and cooking. This meant scenic deck showers in the early evenings, a hose dragged through the cockpit to fill the sink and whites-turned-brown clothes pegged on the rail. You must be comfortable using local well water, clean but unfiltered, and accept running jerry cans to and from the well if spending any amount of time upriver. 

Food is also sparse outside of the larger towns and transport is a difficult but worthwhile experience. If you aren’t up for a long and dusty walk, then local transport is either a hot stuffy minivan or a cool rickety donkey cart. Donkey cart is preferable as there is a limited number of bodies that fit on top of the cart, though witnessing people bumped off means safety is not guaranteed. But I’ll risk safety for comfort, as being trapped inside a nine-person minivan with thirty other people wedged inside is a practice in achieving mental zen. I love the craziness of it, but bumping along dusty roads with your body crammed into a locked position against sweaty strangers is one thing, compounded by the fact that it will take you four hours to move 12 miles and for every minute spent moving you’ll spend ten minutes stopped. In the heat. With the windows closed. Oddly, it is the only place that I saw masks being used; not to stop the transmission of Covid but to decrease the inhalation of dust. When you get back to the boat in the the same darkness you departed the boat in, you are exhausted but have a sack full of onions and potatoes. Mission accomplished. 

One last but important consideration is to understand what “floats your boat” — what is it you seek when you cruise? If it is solitude and seclusion, Gambia is your place. You can spend weeks up a creek hidden from the world, with only bird song to remind you that other life forms exist. Is it cultural experience? You will be well rewarded as you are more than just an observer in Gambia. You will be warmly welcomed in any village you visit and the Gambian hospitality is some of the most inclusive, generous that I’ve experienced. Looking for a party? A cruising community is non-existent and, if seeking kindred-spirited sailors, you will be hosting a party for one. So, know your social agenda before choosing your destination. 

If this list of considerations leaves you questioning why you’d sail for a muddy river on Africa’s western shores, the peaceful tranquility of Gambia’s social isolation and the unique cultural experience of Gambia’s social immersion is the sweet reward. 

Social Isolation

When I recall Gambia visually, I will think of a country of mirrors. Everything has a double: There are two suns that shine down, two moons that rise up, the roots of every tree end in dense foliage and the bottom of every house rests on its rooftop. As a longtime cruiser, I am used to the ripple of wind across water, the constant roll over gentle waves and the swell of the ocean as if it breathes. It has been a long time since I’ve looked out over water that has no movement, no heartbeat, no breath. Yet, it is the reflections on the motionless river water that brings it to life. I didn’t realise a muddy river could be so beautiful and so full of vibrant colour: Blue, green, red, white, black. The water captures the life that surrounds it and tossed it back — the  sky, the forest, the sun, the moon and the people in beautiful, perfect reflections. 

It sounds like a crazy Alice in Wonderland kind of world, unless you understand the degree to which the River Gambia dominates the country. It is a country that stretches 350 miles from west to east with a river that runs the entire length of it. The country is surrounded by Senegal, which at its furthest is only 20 miles away and often only two. The river is the country.

With the river comes the animals that depend on it. I was told that I’d see hippo and crocodile on the riverbanks, and I accepted that there would be a possibility that I’d have such luck when transiting up the river. What I didn’t appreciate at the time is that I was guaranteed to see hippo and crocodile. They don’t live in isolation; they live in abundance. Their presence is marked in every creek by the trampled reeds that line the waterfront and the river access holes that tunnel through the bush. On Christmas Eve we took little chimes up on deck in the evening to convince the kids that they’d heard Santa’s slay. A cute idea, but the tinkle of bells was drowned out by the bellow of hippo that had come out into the river right next to the boat. On Christmas Eve a crocodile crashed through the reeds into the water five meters from our anchor. On New Years Eve we sat in our tender watching croc laze on muddy shores and hippo cool down in the shallows and, on the same stretch of river, men in their pirogues laying out their fishing nets. We also sat in our dinghy in the national park to watch a family of chimpanzee curiously watch us, silently peering out from a tree overhanging the water only yards away. Dolphin were also present, and a pleasant but unexpected surprise. When I think of river I think of fresh water, but the lower river is saltwater and it was with great delight share the waterway with them. I had hoped for sightings of wildlife in Gambia, and I got it. What I didn’t expected it was that it would all be so close and abundant.

We chose the isolation and the quiet solitude offered by the smaller creeks on our two week trip up the river. Due to timing, we kept to ourselves over the holidays and enjoyed our celebrations surrounded by the beauty of the river. Because we were away from the villages, we were submersed in the wildlife. The birdlife was prolific and we sighted dolphin, hippo, croc or chimpanzee every day. Why take a detour to Gambia? It is more than a chance to get off the beaten path — it is to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, the silence of the river and the magic of chance encounters with animals that are so different than those typically seen by yacht. 

Social Immersion

If Gambia was a coin and each side of the coin was associated with an attribute of the country, heads would be social isolation and tails would be social inclusion. As we chose heads on our way up the river, we chose tails on the way down. There are many remote villages that dot the river’s edge and the locals are hospitable, welcoming and warm. Invitations to visit are readily made by waving hands on the shoreside and if you aren’t drawn in by their visual signs of welcome, then they will paddle out in a pirogue to deliver greetings in person. 

The children are as enthusiastic as children are anywhere in Africa — gregarious, enthusiastic and inquisitive. Being swamped by small bodies in a cacophony of noise is not a unique experience, and I am always charged by the energy that the children bring with them. What was a welcome surprise, however, was the warm welcome that was also extended to us by the adults. It helps that English is widely spoken and having a shared language allows for a connection with people you meet along the way. But there is more than language to credit for the warm Gambian hospitality. 

While Gambia is a poor country and the people are living in very third-world conditions, I experienced little of that “give me” attitude that occurs in many poor nations. If anything, the handouts came the other way. There wasn’t a single village we visited where we weren’t made to feel welcome. I’ve had more meals made for me, been asked to drink more tea and been gifted more fish and vegetables than in any country I’ve travelled to. Even the wood-carving peddler offered two additional carvings at the end of the deal as gifts for the kids (and I’d only bought one small bowl) and the batik artist gave my daughter a dress even though I didn’t purchase anything. Self-selected guides would offer to walk with us as we arrived, making introductions to others in the community along the way and ensuring we were comfortable and our needs were met. It was fantastic to have an ambassador while walking through the centre of a village; it made us immediately less of an outsider and allowed us to experience a deeper layer of the community. 

In one village we were enthusiastically invited to join in a Christian ceremony, where we followed a man around town who was wearing a horned headdress and gourd-covered back. He was dressed to represent the evil spirit of an animal while the community chased after it to scare it away. I’m not sure what part of Christianity was being covered, but in a predominately Muslim community I don’t think that was what mattered. That the fruit bloomed and the vegetable gardens were safe was of much more practical concern. 

We were also honoured by an invitation to join a family in the naming ceremony of their newborn son. To properly mark the occasion, we undertook the arduous two-hour minibus journey to town to source fabric, track down a seamstress and have a ceremonial outfit made on the spot. We departed at 6:00am and returned hot and tired at 6:00pm, ready to start the celebrations the following morning. The ceremony was beautiful to witness and I am honoured to have been included, early as it was. To start the day we were invited into the house to watch the baby’s head get shaven and for the 7-day old infant to make his first appearance to the world. A woman was in charge of money collection and a continuous stream of women walked in with a donation of rice, as the new mother would be taking some time from the fields (the cultivation of rice was a woman’s job, and rice from the field was the primary source of food for the family). We then watched the community elders gather, chant and whisper the given name into the infants ear. Prayer was then given to the child’s health and welfare and the name, which had been selected by the elders, was finally announced to the family. Afterwards the men sang and prayed as a group and the woman did the same in another, followed by a shared communal bowl of sweet ground rice and the gift of betel nut shared amongst the group. A morning of sitting, chatting and drinking tea commenced, a large shared lunch in the afternoon to follow, however the evening party was cancelled due to the death of an elder in the afternoon. I would have loved an evening sitting in their compound, dancing to the beat of drums in my newly-stitched stiff waxed-cotton African dress, but it was not to be. 

There is a culture of collective consciousness which was evident in many of the interactions between the adults. It was evident in the naming ceremony, in the hush of the village upon the death of a community member, in the community lunch shared at Lamin Lodge where everyone was guaranteed a free meal. We noticed it on our very first day in Gambia, when our local escort passed small change to his friends in passing. In most instances it was our money that was passed out, but it was an introduction to the communal nature of the people nonetheless. I saw this again and again, the nonchalant passing of small change between hands in passing, slipped over on a handshake. I was also a benefactor of this generosity as a hot tea, a chilled bag of yoghurt or piece of fruit would be randomly passed over to me with a smile. 

It was also obvious that it is taught from an early age. If a treat is offered, there was no greed. Everything was divided and shared. Children often paddled a pirogue out or swam out to visit us at the boat and an invite onboard would be extended which would start an endless wave of visitors. If treats were in hand when others arrived, the kids would hand their drink over or split their half-nibbled cookie so that the newly arrived wouldn’t miss out. My favourite story is that of a friend, who shared a gummy worm he had with several children. The first child licked the sugar then passed it along, the next took a lick and and the next until all the sugar was gone. Then it was slowly nibbled and passed until the entire gummy had been shared amongst every child. 

Covid Considerations

There was a certain perk to our decision to head for Gambia, which was that the country was Covid-free. While the Caribbean bubble was disintegrating and Covid regulations were making travel not only difficult but also expensive, Gambia was a safe haven in the crazy world of global epidemics. We spent a portion of time at our base camp at Lamin Lodge, a well-known cruisers haven that had fallen into disrepair. The local community had picked up the gauntlet during the tough tourist-starved year and established a daily communal meal to ensure everyone was fed; we were invited to share in the feast. The centre of activity was usually under the trees between two local establishments: One was a bar that, due to the lack of electricity, sold only soda from a chilly bin and the other was a restaurant that, due to the lack of clients, only served instant coffee. 

We would all mill around, hopeful that the 2:00 mealtime would be ready by 3:00 but was never ready before 4:00 and most frequently served at 5:00. We learned quickly never to come to lunch hungry. I came to appreciate the time required to produce a meal after getting involved with the cooking. The typical Gambian meal is 95% rice, 4% fish and 1% veg, cooked for several hours over charcoal in a large iron pot in a layered process: Fry the fish in a gallon of vegetable oil and remove. Add veggies, herbs and spices to the pot of oil in order of density, set aside. Cook the rice in the richly favoured oil. Three hours later you have cooked the three separate components of the meal, which is layered on a platter in reverse order and served. And let me tell you, the food was delicious. No doubt the bucket of oil was a contributing factor.

When eventually served, we would huddle in a group and share the meal together. At a time when my family in England and the USA were hibernating in isolation due to the surge in Covid cases, we were sitting hunkered down in the dirt eating with our hands from a communal platter with strangers. How different our experience was from so many around the world. We enjoyed the daily ritual of a shared meal and the camaraderie that came with it, and it was hard to pull ourselves away when it came time to do so.

So ask again, why Gambia? Is it worth the motoring and the mud and the bugs? Yeah, I can give up a few rum cocktails for a trip up the Gambia river. I’ll take a month of motoring for a few days in the silent tranquility of her freshwater creeks. I’ll elbow through a mile of mud to sip tea with a stranger. I’ll battle a billion mosquitoes to hold a hundred little hands in my palm. If I were a gambling woman I’d put money down on the Gambian coin, and it wouldn’t matter what side of the coin I laid my bet on. Every day I would lay my bet, flip the coin and let fate decide my direction: Heads for the river and tails for the village. Social isolation or social inclusion — either way I’d be a winner.

Photos posted on: Images

Sugar and Spice

Follow link to read the published article: Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

When the end of the cruising season in the southern Caribbean was upon us, we did what a majority of Caribbean cruisers do: We sailed south for Grenada. We delayed as long as we could, knowing the hurricane season was upon us but not wanting to be forced south. I had but one impression of Grenada, and that was of rotting boats and retired sailors. It was a cruisers graveyard, or so I thought, and I was far from accepting an end to our sailing days.

Grenada is the southernmost group of islands in the Lesser Antilles archipelago as well as the name of the main island within a cluster of eight smaller islands and about a dozen smaller islets and cays. The only thing I knew of its geography prior to arriving was that it was one of the few island groups in the Caribbean far enough south to be considered out of the hurricane belt. It was with supreme irony, therefore, that we had to shelter in the mangroves on our first day in country from a category 1 storm. As we lashed Ātea’s bow to densely-bound tree roots and secured lines to the cleats of yachts on either side of us, our small unit became a part of the larger, unified collective. Little did we realise that this interconnection would be representative of our Grenadian experience.

Safely through the storm, we disbanded and spread out to explore our new surroundings. We completed our clearance in Carriacou, Grenada’s northern sister island, and we were amazed to see a hundred or so yachts anchored in Tyrell Bay, Carriacou’s main harbour. I knew Grenada was popular, but if the numbers of boats in Carriacou were anything to judge by, I’d have to cope with much larger numbers when we travelled further south. The south coast of Granada not only provides the most settled weather, it is riddled with about a dozen safe harbours from the dominant easterly swell. It the reason why cruisers gather on Grenada’s south coast, and it is also the reason why cruisers remain. Some stay for hurricane season, some use the island as a base for a few years, some retire from active cruising and either settle or sell. One thing was certain, though: Grenada was far more than the end of the line.

Before making the journey south, however, we wanted to stretch out the season by adding in a short circumnavigation around Carriacou, known to the Kalinago (the original Island Caribs) as “The Isle of Reefs.” Given name and reputation, we would spend our time dodging bommies and soaking up the tropical island experience with our feet in the sand, our bellies in the water and our hands on a bottle of rum. We stopped at Petite Martinique, the third and smallest of the three main islands, and enjoyed the rugged, rocky beaches, side-stepping clusters of goat grazing the green rolling hills as we hiked up Mount Piton for panoramic views of the surrounding islands, and climbed down into the Darant Bay Cave for framed views of the same islands at sea level. Of course, we couldn’t miss a few sundowners on Mopion, a tiny sand mound rising amid expansive coral reef with a single beach umbrella perched in the centre. While technically a part of the Grenadines, its proximity to Petite Martinique made a quick dash across the border for a sip in the shade of this unique little spot a worthwhile experience. Living up to its name, Carriacou was an island surrounded by unspoiled reef, and it did not disappoint. A quick tour of her perimeter was the perfect way to salute the end of an amazing Caribbean season.

With a quick stop-over in Ronde Island, a beautiful private island that lay half way between Carriacou and Grenada, we continued our transit south. Again, of things unexpected, I’d not prepared myself for the wild beauty of Grenada’s west coast. Mile after mile of dense, lush forest cascade down the leeward side of the island from peak to sea. We hugged the coastline as we sailed the 13 miles down the west coast, looking up at 2,700 feet of volcanic rock and shear waterfalls that fed the small rivers that ran down the slopes of the mountainous interior to the coast. While Grenada is well reputed as a tourist destination for holiday-makers seeking either a sun-drenched party or quiet refuge on one of its 45 beaches, I knew from sailing down the coast that my preferences would draw me inland.

Grenada’s coastline contains many large bays, but the majority of yachts head for safe anchorage behind one of the many narrow peninsulas that spit up the southern coastline. As we pulled into Prickly Bay, the first of Grenada’s southern harbours, I knew from the crowd of yachts that I would be escaping to the interior as soon as possible. As it turned out, I didn’t get that chance. As soon as we dropped anchor we were invited ashore for a cruiser’s jam session, reconnecting with friends from past seasons. The following day we found ourselves crammed into the back seat of a taxi on our way to an event for the annual Chocolate Festival, and our schedule quickly filled after that: Tours of cocoa plantations, cocoa grinding competitions, chocolate tastings and chocolate drawing contests. In additional to the island’s cultural events, we were also immediately drawn into the cruiser’s social scene. On our first week of arrival our mornings were already booked into early morning yoga and bootcamp on the beach, and the kids joined a cruiser’s homeschooling collective and regular extracurricular activities that were held under the shade of the trees. If we weren’t listening to live music or joining the beach barbecues put on by the locals in the evenings, we were sitting poolside and sipping beers from a $5 bucket with a crowd of other cruisers at Le Phare Bleu, a boutique hotel who’d opened their amenities and their services to cruisers during the pandemic. Every morning there was an activity and every evening there was a social get-together, and the weeks flew by in a social extravaganza unlike any we’d experienced. As yachts gather in Grenada every year for the hurricane season, it was clear that the regularity of this influx of boats had resulted in a solid cruising community and a variety of services and events that have arisen from it. Far more than a collection of retired boats and sunburnt seamen, my preconceived notions of Grenada didn’t come close to the reality of the vibrant cruising network that existed on this popular island.

As we made new friends and reconnected with old ones, we found that we really enjoyed the buzz that the tight community offered. Pulling myself out of the continuous activity took a concerted effort, but I eventually dragged the family off the beach and up the mountains. After our trip into the interior, I knew I had a new passion for my time in Granada: Exploring waterfalls. A short bus journey followed by a hike into the forest would lead us to one of Granada’s many waterfalls, and unlike other tourist destinations where fees were handed over and you’d stand under falls next to groups of other tourists, we had the rivers free of cost and all to ourselves. Some of the trails were a short distance from the road, and we’d hop on and off a bus to walk the short distance to the falls. Others, such as Seven Sisters and the Concord Falls, required planning as it took a full day to hike in and out of the forest, clambering up steep banks and criss-crossing the river to wind through deep forest to get a view from the top. Each part of the river that ran down from one of the six inland lakes had its own magic and I was enthusiastic to see what each had to offer. It was only later it that I really appreciated all that I’d gotten in terms of Grenada’s inland beauty. As I paid $20 per person to stand in crowd under cascading water in Costa Rica’s most popular waterfalls, I couldn’t help but compare it to all that I’d been able to see and experience in Grenada’s secluded, remote interior.

In additional to nature, we explored some of the historical roots of Grenada’s past. Grenada’s original economy was based on sugar cane and indigo, and with that came the importation of slaves in the mid-seventeenth century to work and harvest the crops. We set out to search for some of the old plantation houses and slave pens that remained from that period, which took us on a wild tramp through the the backstreets of quiet neighbourhoods and into unmarked bush to find these lost relics. It was quite the education for our children to see the small, dank, windowless stone slave quarters set behind grand old houses, a potent reminder of darker times in this beautiful and vibrant country. We also smelled and sampled some of Grenada’s more current crops, nutmeg, mace and cocoa at the top of the list of exports, and enjoyed local culinary treats such as oil down, a vegetable stew that is the country’s national dish. Thanks to these excursions we can say that Grenada is, both figuratively and literally, full of sugar and spice.

Cruising often leaves you tied to the boat and, therefore, the sea. Grenada was a wonderful period of enjoying the most of both land and sea in equal balance, and in doing so we were able to get the most of what the country has to offer. To see the beaches but not the forest, lakes and rivers is to get only half the experience; likewise to spend time inland but not explore the coast leaves only half an impression. As Grenada offers safe anchorage throughout the hurricane season, cruisers remain in close proximity for an extended period of time, sharing experiences and building friendships. This is unique for a community that is typically very transient, and offers plenty of opportunity to create a home away from home atmosphere. In addition, there are suitable yacht services available so that the period of time spent waiting for the next season gives everyone a chance to get much needed repair work done. Far from being the end of the line, Grenada offers an interim rest stop where friendships are forged and yachts are restored on an island that offers a wide range of activities and opportunities both on and above the waterline.

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Beautiful Barbuda

Barbuda is a low-lying coral island thirty miles north of Antigua, and one of the best hidden secrets of the Northern Antilles. Most of the 1,600 local residents live in the main city of Codrington, leaving the remainder of the island a collection of uninhabited beaches and coral lowlands. It is here that cruisers can enjoy the quiet solitude afforded in so few places throughout the Caribbean. 

All beaches being equal, each of the anchorages were very difference experiences: Spanish Point was remote, wind swept and deserted, bringing together a tight cruising community where the kids collectively played on the beach and the adults kite-surfed in the afternoon and everyone came together in the evenings for a barbecue and bonfire. A new curfew had been enforced across Antigua and Barbuda, but this restriction felt a million miles away as we freely mingled under the stars. It was a return to coral waters and sandy beaches, but sadly much of the reef was dead and the fish life sparse, most notable ashore in the mass mounds of conch graveyards.  As such, we focused on sports on top of the water rather than under it, enjoying a dedicated period of time for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Eventually the relentless trade winds that blowed a consistent 20 knots across the anchorage that drove us to seek shelter elsewhere. Spanish Point will remain in our minds a wild, windy and remote destination, yet equal in its beauty and the enjoyment of the constant social engagements with other cruisers. 

We found a long, beautiful fine white sand beach at Coco Point that, unfortunately, had also been discovered by the local hotel industry. An exclusive water sports club dominated the best kiting spots, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the most of our corner of the beach. The kids enjoyed racing around on their newly-acquired water skis and John enjoyed spending time on his windsurfer, dragged down by kids catching a ride on the front of the board. We enjoyed a lobster dinner prepared by a local fisherman and the company of a few new cruising friends, a few of which became central to our enjoyment of the Caribbean further down the line.

Codrington sits at the northern tip of the island and provides a stunning pink sand beach that stretches for miles. We shared the anchorage with three other cruisers, enjoying  lunch picnics in the afternoons and sunset cocktails in the evenings. The highlight was getting close to breeding frigate birds who were amassed in great numbers in the inner estuary. We took our paddle boards on an expedition to get closer to them, and by rowing across a narrow strip of land into the shallow brackish lagoon we were able to approach the frigate birds nesting grounds and silently observe the mating rituals as the males puffed their bulbous red throats and the females squawked their response.

Barbuda will be one of those destinations that provided unique experiences in each of the different anchorages we visited. It was filled with fantastic moments shared with the other cruisers, from lobster barbeques, daily water sport, evening bonfires — all made the more unique as our isolation from society meant we weren’t locked down by a curfew that were restricting so many others. Our days were full, our nights were full, and our memories are full from all the wonderful experiences.

Bonaire’s a Blast

Bonaire was a mini-holiday destination for us and we lapped up the luxuries through excellent shoreside meals, social sunset happy hours, desert hikes, round-the-island road trips and daily dives off the aft end of the boat. Diving in Bonaire is like hopping into an oversized aquarium, where everything is benign and beautiful, colourful and diverse, easy and accessible, placid and playful, all the way down to the miniature seahorses resting on the mooring block. There were none of the challenges that can be so typical of cruising in this small Dutch colony. Here, everything was easy: The weather, the life ashore, the life under water, the diving, the sailing, the socialising. Our days were full of fun and full of rum, without a worry in the world. 

A full account of our time in Bonaire was published by PassageMaker in the following article: The ABCs of Bonaire.

A Worthy Destination

Link to published article: Cruising Cartagena: A Worthy Destination.

Route planning can sometimes be more about what you choose to you miss out on rather than what you include. Time in country can be surprisingly short for many cruisers, as seasonal weather requires you to plot a destination and move towards it on a relatively strict timeframe. Often there is little room for detours and deviations; if a country isn’t on your track, it is left in your wake forever.

The problem is, unplanned destinations often crop up and fitting them in can become a priority.  Colombia was never a name on our list of cruising destinations until we got to the Southern Caribbean, but the closer we got to South America the more frequently the name Cartagena cropped up. At the time our focus was on transiting the Panama Canal and cruising the remote Pacific islands, and a detour to a big city didn’t appeal. However, we were transiting from low-key islands in the Atlantic to low-key islands in the Pacific and an injection of high-speed would be a nice change of pace: A large sheltered bay, a busy metropolitan city, a UNESCO world-heritage site and the vibrance of the vivacious Latin culture—Colombia was our unexpected add-on. 

As the date for our transit to Colombia neared, rumours started to spread concern. We were starting to hear reports of very strong winds, poor anchorages and crime off the north coast of Colombia, all reasons to avoid the country. The winds that funnel around the coast create a wind acceleration zone, resulting in high winds and steep seas. Would we be driving Ātea into a chaotic washing machine? Colombia has a history of violent crime. Would we loose everything in not padlocked to the deck or hidden on our bodies? Everyone spoke of rough anchorages and the need to stay in marinas. Could our budget survive?

The more we heard of Colombia, however, the more the sense of adventure outweighed calls for caution. As sailors, how could we not be drawn in by a city steeped in piracy, conquest and gold? As travelers, how could we not fall under the spell of a vibrant city thriving behind old fortified walls? We would get a break from our lazy sun-drenched Caribbean beach days and drink aquadentes under the twinkling lights strung above Cartagena’s rooftop bars and dance until dawn in the city’s most famous salsa clubs. We decided to re-draw the travel plan for the season. We decided to sail for Cartagena.

The Old Amid the New

Cartagena’s dramatic high-rise skyline rose up on the horizon as we closed our two-day passage from Bonaire to Colombia, giving us our first indication of the very different pace that lay ahead of us. As we entered through the eastern entrance to Bocagrande, our echo-sounder bounced from 10 to 3 meters, registering an underwater breakwater that had been built in the mid-1700s to close off the the northern entrance to the bay and force all access to Cartegena by sea past the heavily-fortified southern entrance. Old military forts that used to protect the Spanish from foreign invaders now stand idle, welcoming inbound traffic from all over the world. Today, the Port of Cartagena is Colombia’s main container port and processes around 1600 vessels each year, including container ships, cruise ships, bulk carriers, and the odd cruising yacht. The cannons that point seaward are no longer a threat to foreign interest.

Sailing past these 500-year old fortifications is a reminder that much of Cartagena’s past is deeply woven into its present. Old forts stand beside modern skyscrapers that line the shoreline of Playa de Bocagrande, Cartagena’s version Miami Beach. Empty turrets stand next to busy modern housing complexes and sections of fortress break way to streets and pedestrian walkways. La Cudad Amurallada, Cartagena’s historic walled city, is the most well-preserved and complete fortification in South America. As in the past, horse and cart roll down old cobblestone streets, however they are now interrupted by lengthy traffic jams. Perfectly preserved colonial architecture has been repurposed into swanky cafés, upmarket restaurants, local residence and boutique shops. The 11 kilometres of old city wall are a unique feature in itself, as it is possible to circumnavigate the city by walking on top of them. The old exposed brick covered in beautifully painted graffiti and covered in brightly blooming jacaranda is a perfect example of how the past has been perfectly woven into the present, creating one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

We enjoyed every minute of our time in Cartagena. We wandered through San Felipe de Barajas Castle and learned about the constant pirate assaults and colonial invasions and strolled through the convent and chapel of La Candelaria de la Popa, a beautiful church that sits atop the city’s highest hilltop, Mount Popa. We walked throughout the old walled city a dozen times, seeing many of the popular landmarks from statues of Simón Bolivar and India Catalina that stand in vibrant central plazas to gold museums, theatre houses, slave quarters and bull rings held within beautiful colonial buildings. We found a dozen or so Spanish colonial-style churches and cathedrals spread throughout the city. When we were done sightseeing, we soaked up the colourful Colombian environment: We relaxed in street side cafés, listened to buskers strumming local tunes, window-shopped outside upmarket designer boutiques, ate scrumptious local chow in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and gazed at the provocative murals and graffiti that are generously displayed throughout the city. It was ambling through these backstreets gazing at the magnificent street art that I was reminded of the list of reasons not to come to Cartagena, and crime had been top of the list. When everything that surrounded me left me buzzing with delight, I had to wonder what the negative comments were about.

Little Reason for Concern

And what of our concerns after gaining first-hand experience? Many of the streets considered too dangerous twenty years ago are now popular hangout spots filled with funky cafes and swanky bars, trendy artisan shops and local art galleries. Rough turned bohemian and the historically volatile neighbourhoods had transformed into a hip, artistic quarter that drew in international visitors by the thousands. While I was wary of pickpockets, I had no cause for concern in regard to serious crime.

Poor anchorages and restrictions to marinas were also mentioned, however we stayed just outside the Club Nautico de Cartagena marina with our anchor buried deep in the mud. The only rough movement we experienced was created by the daily tour boats that rushed past us during the day which stirred up significant chop. If you were doing Cartagena right, you were also busy being a tourist during the day and any daytime discomfort would be irrelevant. By the time you returned to the yacht, the tour boats were tucked back in their berths and the peaceful quiet of a flat calm anchorage surrounded by a city full of sparkling lights stretched out before you, a view no fancy hotel could match.

In regard to caution regarding strong winds, the place of greatest intensity is the waters between Punta Gallinas and Cabo Augusta. This should be approached with a good forecast, but this is nothing more than standard good seamanship for the area. The winds can be strong and the swell can be large, but with a proper forecast this isn’t reason to avoid the north coast of Colombia altogether. We enjoyed remote, peaceful bays of the Tayrona National Park and enjoyed the bustle of our anchorage in Cartagena’s busy port, planning our movement between them with a quick weather check. With time and prudence, entry into the country doesn’t warrant precautions out of the norm.

After experiencing Colombia firsthand, we start a new rumour: Cartagena is a fantastic cruising destination. The winds are manageable, safe anchorages are plentiful and serious crime is a carry over from a bygone era. Take your time, check your weather, trust your anchor and go have some big city fun. I came to Cartagena uncertain about what lay ahead, but it was a matter of days before I’d fallen for its charm. I could stay in the area for weeks, months, even years. Given a sturdy air-con unit, I could stay indefinitely. The people are friendly, the topography varied, the cruising options abundant. The city is a living history, a blend of the old and the new, the past and the present. It is radiant, vibrant, and absorbing. Adding Colombia to our itinerary was a fantastic diversion from our year in the Caribbean and a welcome shift from the Pacific islands ahead of us. If Colombia lays as a detour from your route, do yourself a favour: Rewrite the plan. Make sure you don’t look back and see it left behind in your wake. A dog-leg isn’t a detour when it holds all that Cartagena offers. It is the destination.