28 March 2017

It's All Fun and Games Until Somebody Goes Sailing

Sailing sucks, or perhaps more accurately, there are many aspects of sailing and long term cruising that are the opposite of paradise and bliss.

Captain Linda Perry Riera

I am immensely grateful for this spectacular temporary lifestyle and for the major role sailing has played in my life for the past 10+ years. Sailing provides physical and mental exercise, connection with interesting places and people, and intimacy with nature. These aspects of sailing dominate this blog. Perhaps it is only fair that I share a more rounded view, including some of the crappier aspects, of the the experience.

Most of what we share on this blog are the beautiful and fun parts of cruising. Below will be a glimpse in to the other side of sailing.

The Head

Speaking of crappy aspects... a few weeks ago in St. John (ha, St John... get it?!) we experienced our first head clog and spent a smelly morning taking apart the toilet to clear out built-up calcification in the hoses and pump. Hose constriction caused by thick calcification is a common problem. We are now treating regularly with a mild muriatic acid solution. When we get back to a home base, we're in for a total replacement of all the sanitation hoses.We have also had to replace the macerator.

Installing the new macerator was my job. Bob got to pull up the entire toilet to get to the clogged pipes a bit later. No, we do not call a plumber.

Many places in the US are very strict about managing water quality and enforce rules around pumping out holding tanks - especially in harbors and marinas. This is not the case in much of the Caribbean. Locals cock their head in confusion when asked how one gets "pumped out"; it is commonplace, unfortunately, to dump overboard. This makes swimming in some harbors not only gross but unhealthy. The seemingly most polluted harbor we were anchored in was a mostly land locked lagoon in Saint Martaan.

The US tends to have much more strict laws and better services regarding handling of waste compared to many areas of the Caribbean. There are some exceptions such as Turks and Caicos and designated protected waters in the US Virgin Island (mainly St. John). This is a pump out boat that comes out to an anchorage to empty holding tanks.

Managing Gunk

Gunk is the nautical term for slimy stuff that builds up in strainers, on the bottom of the boat and dinghy, in the bilge and sump, etc. It takes constant vigilance to keep gunk in check.

Build up in a water strainer.

Scrubbing Argon's bottom...

... and the bottom of the keel. Build up of algae and barnacles substantially reduces speed.

Spending, Drinking and Eating

Of course money, alcohol, and food can all be great fun. But when cruising long term, it is important to manage ones spending, drinking and eating wisely. This can be difficult when often surrounded by cruisers who are just on a week or two vacation and understandably partying it up for their brief reprieve. Unfortunately our spending burn rate has been higher than budgeted in part due to exorbitant data costs (more on this below) and spending more on docking than planned.

With plentiful beach bars it can be devilishly tempting to join vacationers in the party atmosphere regardless of the day of the week. So we (usually) avoid imbibing.

Tempting two for one happy hours.

Polishing, Waxing, Cleaning

It can be extra challenging keeping Argon looking good in the constant low latitude sun with scant access to fresh water for regular, deep cleaning. The salt really bakes on the hull requiring elbow grease in addition to just rinsing. Water is often metered at up to $0.35 per gallon making a good deck or hull wash expensive. Managing dampness can be a challenge especially during humid spells. We occasionally splurge and fire up the air conditioner when plugged in to shore power at a marina (metered usually) to dry out the boat. This is also a good time for a thorough cleaning down below.

Waxing the hull from the dinghy while anchored in Simpson Bay, Saint Maarten.

Messy teak cleaning while docked in San Juan.

Polishing the stainless steel bow roller.

Looking way too happy waxing the gelcoat in the heat.

Repairing and Maintaining

As any boat owner knows, there is always something to repair, upgrade, or maintain on a boat. Although we stocked up generously on supplies and spares before our trip, we occasionally need to source something locally. This is often a challenge as there just is not access to a wide variety of supplies across most islands. Luckily, Argon has been performing splendidly and has needed very little. Tartan quality overall has been superb.

Ah... finally a well stocked chandlery in Guadeloupe where we could secure the elusive sail drive anodes.

Wiring job...
... more wiring for new windlass switches ...

... and wiring in the new refrigerator compressor pump. Notice that Bob has to crawl down in to lots of small spaces.

The most recent project was to replace the refrigerator compressor pump while in Turks and Caicos. This was the one pump we had not secured a spare for in advance. Thus instead of a quick trip to West Marine for a $135 replacement, it cost nearly $400 including express shipping, import taxes and mark ups. Oh, and $40 for the cab ride to pick up the pump. Plus we had to stay in the marina an extra few days waiting for the part.


Reliable WiFi while island and country hoping has been a major challenge. We probably require a bit more connectivity that the average cruiser as Bob is working half time (but checks in much more often) and needs reliable connectivity just about whenever in port. Occasional accessing of e mails from on shore restaurant WiFi a few times a week just will not cut it. In addition, we rely heavily on the internet for information, documents, writings, and just our lifestyle. We have spent and learned a lot along the way that is outlined in this recent blog post about connecting in the Caribbean.

Securing data options upon arrival in a new country has become a priority, second only to customs and immigration check in.

Argon's data requirements are probably a bit more than the average cruiser.

Rough Conditions

We have encountered some challenging conditions both while sailing and in harbor ranging from uncomfortable to somewhat dangerous. Sailing off shore is never taken lightly and always challenging.

Tethered in during the six day off shore passage from Bermuda to Antigua.

Sometimes the shorter hops between islands can be difficult. A few of the more challenging ones have included:

A squally 100nm overnight sail from Antigua to Dominica brought several periods of short but intense rain storms with high winds to manage in the dark. We were extremely happy when daybreak unveiled our destination.

A very short five mile hop from English Harbor Antigua just over to Mamora Bay should have been a piece of cake. But winds and seas were high and transiting the narrow, shallow opening through the reefs in high swells was terrifying with rocks perilously close as Argon got tossed about. Once inside Mamora Bay all was calm.

Anchoring vs. Mooring vs. Docking

If measuring time we probably anchor 60%, moor 20% and dock 20%. If measuring spend, then it is 0%, 10% 90%. 

Anchoring of course is the most economical, often be the most beautiful, and feels most like genuine cruising.

But in rough conditions or when there is not good holding or swing room, it can be difficult to have peace of mind when at anchor. And it can be challenging or impossible to get to shore via dinghy when winds are really high.

When we find a place to drop the hook, it has become commonplace for one of us to jump in the water with fins and snorkel to examine the anchor set, how the chain is lying, and all the area around the anchor for holding strength and risk of fouling. Here the anchor is buried and holding tight in the sand. The chain skips along the bottom when the wind gusts and yanks Argon's bow pulling back on the tackle.

The most difficult anchorages for us have been:
  • Dehaise, Guadeloupe - With 30kt winds and gusts to 40kts we had a very nerve wracking and uncomfortable couple of days. We dragged anchor just a little bit but mostly held.
  • Prince Rupert Bay, Dominica - Rollers came in unexpectedly causing dramatic rocking of all the boats. After a couple of days of this we cut our visit short and headed to Les Saintes.
  • Gustavia, St. Barts - Anchoring area is interspersed among a very crowded and deep mooring field making it quite difficult to find a spot allowing sufficient scope.
  • Grand Turk was challenging to find a large enough sandy spot among the rock and coral in shallow waters to lay down enough chain; this was made more interesting by being very close to a the famous Grand Turk Ledge that plummets immediately to 2000 feet.
The conditions in the beautiful anchorage of Dehaise, Guadeloupe would soon become snotty with 20-30kt winds and much higher gusts for a couple of days. It was difficult to sleep and we were not able to leave the boat during this time.

The best anchorages have been:
  • Pigeon Island, Guadeloupe
  • English Harbor, Antigua
  • Little Bay, Montserrat (although the reputation is that of a difficult anchorage but conditions were calm when we were there)
  • Simpson Bay, Saint Maarten
Some places that would have been too deep to safely anchor but offered well-maintained moorings included:
  • Les Saintes, Guadeloupe
  • West Bay, Saba
Moored along the stunning western cliffs of Saba.

Docking: Overall we have spent more time and money (cha-ching) in dock slips than planned. Docking proved to be convenient during visits from our kids but most of our marina stays were to escape rough weather. (I know... the truly hardy sailors are saying to hell with dock slips.)

Several times we opted to tie up at marinas to escape high winds.

Dinghy Management

Our dinghy is necessary, and wonderful, and a pain in the ass.

Hoisting on the davits and taking down from the davits has become a regular routine.

Traveling by dinghy can sometimes be a cold and wet ride.

Prior to off shore legs, the outboard has to be taken off the dinghy and mounted on the stern rail, and the dinghy is secured upside down on the foredeck.
Busy dinghy docks sometimes add to the fun of getting ashore.

Water Management 

Many on extended cruisers opt for a water maker on board. We toiled for months about whether or not to invest in one. On the upside, they can provide one with a good supply of good water for extended cruising. On the down side, they are energy hogs, expensive, and requirement regular maintenance to avoid clogging. Living on the boat for 18 months prior to our trip provided an opportunity to monitor our water usage and practice being more frugal. Ultimately we opted not to go the water maker route. We can go 2 to 3 weeks between boat tank fills with careful usage and mostly bathing in the ocean. It has become a bit more difficult to get (free) potable water in the more arid islands thus we have begun to do manual top offs of our tanks with our portable jerry jugs when there is good and free water available. Thus far we are doing just fine without a watermaker.

We have mostly been able to fill our on board water tanks, that hold 135 gallons in total, at convenient places along the way. Occasionally, however, we find ourselves needing to "jug it"... filling portable jugs on shore, dinghying back to Argon, and dumping in to our water tanks.

Adding good R/O (reverse osmosis) water to our tanks from jerry jugs carted from shore.

Customs and Immigration

Customs and Immigration is always different... where and when, how, fees, etc. Cruising guides and Noonsite are an excellent resources although there always seems to be nuances that one just has to figure out along the way. Fees range widely with more expensive places including Turks & Caicos and Bahamas. Some countries are quite complicated requiring paperwork and check ins at customs, then immigration and also port authority. Others are much more straightforward.

Very informal (but expensive) customs and immigration check-in on a stoop outdoor near the government dock in Bahamas with a friendly man in shorts and a T shirt. Often times it is much more official looking with offices, computers, uniforms and badges.

Life Stuff

Although we have greatly simplified our lives with no home, cars, etc back stateside (see former blog post), there are still plenty of normal life logistics. We can do most banking and other paperwork on line. Often we are in places that accept only cash so we must find ATMs and I have noticed that ATM fees tend to be high and there is an added foreign exchange fee making accessing ones own money quite expensive. And then there is shopping and laundry which have to be figured out every time we arrive someplace new.

Provisioning (stocking up on groceries and other supplies) is done where we can access stores and stands. Sometimes this will be right near a harbor within an easy walk, other times it requires a cab or rental car. Some of the best places for provisioning (prices, quality, and accessibility) have been Les Saintes, Guadeloupe, Saint Maarten, and Saint Thomas. Difficult or limited places included Dominica (except for their open fresh fruit market), Montserrat & Saba (expected as these are very small and remote islands), Turks and Caicos (definitely need a rental car and prices are high), British Virgin Islands (except for major harbor in Road Town Tortola where charters provision for their week).

Tiny market with very sparse selection at Black Point in the Exumas. Ester was extremely helpful in hooking us up with Bernard for a bit of gasoline (see below.)

Groceries are gathered at stands, mini marts, and larger supermarkets. Sometimes we can access via dinghy and a short walk, other times it requires a longer walk or rental car. When easy to get to with decent prices (not the norm) we stock up.

Lately I have been more resourceful in approaching some of the fisherman at the docks to buy or barter some of their catch. We continue to work on our fishing skills, too.

Provisioning day: Dinghy loaded with groceries, filled water jugs, and a bit of wine.

Happily we do not burn much diesel but we need to ensure we have access to reliable fuel when needed. More frequently we need to be able to fill our water tanks (we do not have a water maker) which is about every two to three weeks. Sometimes the water tastes, well, a little funky. I think our immune systems are getting a workout and are extra strong these days.

Laundry needs to be done every couple of weeks. It is easy to go two weeks especially since we currently mostly live in shorts, T shirts, and swim suits. But one needs to figure where and how to get it done. Occasionally there are laundromats nearby or pay washing machines at marinas. Other times one can have it done by a local for a reasonable price.

Laundry is accomplished in a variety of ways.

Sometimes I resort to old fashion hand washing in our galley sink and hanging out to dry on the life lines

Transportation has taken a variety of shapes and sizes. This was an island taxi tour in St. Kitts.
This particular rental car in Nevis was missing at least one lug nut on every tire. No paperwork or even our names were required to rent... just some cash exchanged in someones side yard.

New Places Require Lots of Homework

A major upside to cruising is learning about and experiencing new islands and countries. This certainly does not suck but does take time, attention and planning. With our frequent hopping around and everywhere being fresh to us, much time spent studying charts, cruising guides, weather, ActiveCaptain.com, other on line resources, and picking the brains of fellow cruisers. We tend to start with a high level penciled in plan (for instance aiming to be Puerto Rico by early March), fill in with more details, and adjust along the way. All sailing plans are in pencil.

Where to go next?
Paper charts in addition to electronic.

I spend many hours in the cockpit figuring out where to go to next and how to get there.

We examine charts, Navionics, Open CPN, Active Captain, Cruising Guides, and ask the opinions of other cruisers to develop and hone our itinerary.

And all of the difficulties are worth it a hundred times over!

Sailing away to somewhere new.

15 March 2017

A Sailor's Paradox: Turks and Caicos

Turks and Caicos has been an adventure and despite it's reputation as an island paradise, our experience is perhaps best described as, uh, interdenominational. 

Captain Linda Perry Riera

Antagonistic Views

Bob:  Where the heck do we land the dinghy?
Linda:  Wow this water is beautiful!
Bob:  I'm exhausted. Damn, where's the Customs office?
Linda:  The turquoise colors are intoxicating!
Bob:  You mean we have to anchor on a ledge a few boat lengths from 2000 feet of water?!
Linda:  The snorkeling is fantastic!
Bob:  I need data!
Linda:  I love this secluded paradise.
Bob:  I'm taller than this god forsaken island, there is no wind protection in any of these so called anchorages.
Linda:  This expansive area behind the reefs is a breathtaking place to drop the hook.
Bob:  Holy crap this place is expensive!
Linda:  The boys will have so much fun here!


If looking for pristine beaches with silky sand, the clearest water punctuated by ribbons of different hues of blue, and not too worried about your spending rate, then this is the place. However, for a cruising sailor it presents challenges.

Turks and Caicos is surrounded by reefs to the north and vast expanses of shallows dotted with coral heads to the south

Turks and Caicos Islands


Turks and Caicos (TCI) is often just a quick overnight rest stop for cruising sailors transiting northward to the Bahamas or southward to the Virgin Islands. We stayed here for nearly three weeks including a week's visit with a couple of our kids. TCI is an extremely short country (with elevations not much taller than Bob generally) consisting of 300 islands located south of the Bahamas and north of the Dominican Republic. Only eight of the TCIs are formally populated. These low, flat, limestone land masses have extensive marshes, mangrove swamps, and well over a hundred miles of beach front. Most of the TCI is guarded by beautiful yet prohibitive reefs and shallows... these precarious shallows, along with no wind protection from the low lands, do not make for easy sailing of a 6 foot draft vessel and offer very little protection from wind.

Bob is taller than most of TCI. There are scant options for protected anchorages. Gone are the volcanic and mountainous islands we explored south of here the past several months.

TCI has a population of about 30,000, with vast majority residing on the island of Providenciales (Provo). The weather cannot be beat... usually sunny and dry (30 inches of rain annually resulting in fresh water to be a precious resource) with comfortable temperatures between 75 and 85 year 'round. 

The Three Regions of TCI


(1)  Mouchoir Banks

This is an expansive area of shallows with water breaking surrounded by several thousand foot depths. A major migration route for humpback whales runs between Mouchoir Banks and Grand Turk from the north Atlantic waters. These are the same humpback whales that the Boston based whale watching boats bring thousands of tourists to watch every summer.

This 40 second video clip shows a bit of humpback whale tail slapping and dolphin action:

We saw only one whale in the distance but it was an impressive sight. This humpback spent many minutes raising its tail flukes out of water and slapping them forcefully on the surface of the water. When the flukes hit the water, a loud resonant noise can be heard for miles. It is suspected that humpbacks do this as a warning to nearby whales. Dolphins occasionally swam along side also.

Motoring out of San Juan Harbor at 0500 hours at the start of our off shore trip to Turks and Caicos.
After a bit light winds requiring motoring the first part of day one, the breeze kicked in and seas kicked up. It was a fun, fast stretch for a while.

The two nights were long and difficult with robust winds and seas and scant moonlight. I was not as happy as I look in this picture. This was the first time we had to suit up in foul weather gear in many months. Waves were on our side with several giving us, the deck and the cockpit a good washing.

We were rewarded on the second day with an end to our fishing curse. This mahi provided several good meals despite my weak filleting skills. Reeling her in was tough as Argon was sailing at 8kts and as we were already going downwind, it is not really possible to slow down.

We kept the Mouchoir Banks safely to starboard as we approached Grand Turk. This was a challenging two and a half day passage of more than 365nm with conditions ranging from calm, to perfect; then to challenging when winds were 25+kts and seas built, and culminating in downright uncomfortable for the last 30nm leg having to turn high in to the wind and crashing the bow hard in to seas. We arrived in Grand Turk exhausted but safe.
In hindsight, I made a navigational error as we could have had a Plan B and instead of having to head north in to the wind to Grand Turk, we could have proceeded northwest at a better angle to the wind and gone to Cockburn Harbor in South Caicos.

We are always anxious for dawn to greet us after a dark and difficult overnight passage.

The 365+ mile track from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Cockburn Town, Grand Turks.

(2)  Turks Islands

Turks consists mainly of Grand Turk and Salt Cay. Grand Turk is a small island (only about 5 miles north to south and less than 2 miles east to west) and was our landing point. Although small and sparsely populated compared to the Caicos region of the country, it is the government center. This is where we had a frustrating (and expensive) welcome getting to and clearing Customs and Immigration after the difficult transit from San Juan.  But the water is so beautiful! And Bob was able to get 7G at a decent price through Flow. I need data!

Our second anchorage along the open, exposed western shore of Grand Turk. It took us more than an hour to find a large enough sandy area among patches of rock and coral in depths Argon could handle. The famous Grand Turk Wall with an immediate depth change from 20 to 2000 feet is just a few boat lengths beyond our stern. I was pretty sure we would not drag.

The winds were blowing about 20kts so we monitored our swing carefully to ensure we were not dragging towards The Wall. No problem... time to go play.

There was about 100 feet of visibility and the snorkeling was great right off the boat.

The west coast of Grand Turk has a skinny rim of shallow water (mostly <= 20 feet) abruptly plunging to thousands of feet. The shallow water is to the right in light blue; the deep water is to the left. This Turks Wall is a unique and popular snorkeling and SCUBA site.

I snorkeled along the Wall just a couple boat lengths behind Argon. Bob hovered in the dinghy as the wind and current were away from shore. Swimming and peering over the ledge in to deep blue nothingness was the scariest and most fascinating snorkeling I have ever experienced.

Bob got his data but only after an arduous beaching of the dinghy (as there are no dinghy docks on this part of the island) and eventually finding a Flow store. You can read more about our Caribbean data woes and learnings here.

After two nights anchored off the west coast of Grand Turk (enchanting waters but completely exposed) we needed to get moving as the winds were forecasted to stir up even higher in to the low 30's. With no land elevation or enclosed anchorages for protection, we needed to leave.

We weighed anchor a couple hours before dawn to make the 75nm downwind and rolly passage to the Caicos part of TCI.

(3)  Caicos Islands

Caicos is the group of islands that most people associate with TCI, especially the most populated island of Providenciales, known as Provo, that is home to 80% of the population plus most of the tourists. Caicos also consists of the islands of Middle Caicos, North Caicos, South Caicos, West Caicos and Parrot Cay.

We anchored in Pine Cay behind reefs in a wide open sandy bottom area. I loved the simple beauty and seclusion. Bob not so much. The winds were going to be 30+kts starting the next day so after one night here, we moved to a nearby marina.

Navigating the reefs, shifting sand bars, and random coral heads in to Blue Haven Marina can be tricky. The marina provides a Pilot Boat for unfamiliar mariners to follow.

We arrived at Blue Haven Marina several days earlier than planned to escape the high winds. And then enjoyed welcoming Jon, Christian and Brittany for a visit!! A day trip from the marina out by the reefs allowed us to sample the gorgeous reef waters.

We grabbed a dive mooring along the reefs just east of Grace Bay.

Bob rode out in the marina pilot boat to examine the shallows and routes the prior day, then successfully navigated us from and back to our marina slip without the guide boat for our snorkeling day trip. Definitely not as straightforward as pulling in to Constitution Marina back in Boston.

Day sail fun.

There are dozen of day fishing charters that go out from Blue Haven Marina every day. I purchased a small yellow fin tuna from one of the charters and Ronald gave me a filleting lesson.

Grilling up the fresh tuna. There was plenty left over for the next day.

More snorkeling off Grace Bay Beach. In addition to a myriad of fish, we enjoyed seeing spotted rays and turtles.

The marina was part of a resort which was a major splurge. We indulged in beaches and pools at Blue Haven Marina and were able to visit her two sister resorts, The Alexandra and Beach House. This spell with the boys has definitely felt more like a vacation than cruising. Even boat chores have been on hold.

Jon in full Caribbean mode: Drinking a Red Stripe, standing on a sand bar and wearing his BVI shirt

Exploring shallows at low tide by dinghy and paddle board.

Loving my time with Christian in TCI; missing Joshua and Sharon very much.

Christian and Jon jumped in to the water at the marina to try to get some pictures of a large nurse shark hanging around. The marina waters are plenty clean enough to comfortably swim in.

Large nurse sharks and sea turtles are common near the docks at the marina.

Blue Haven Marina & Resort in Provo has excellent concrete floating docks and full services. Our stay here was way longer than planned due to scant other options when winds are high. Cha-ching.

Being away from our kids is the most difficult aspect of our cruising journey. Whenever any of them can step away from their busy lives and visit us during our travels is a special time. Therefore, the time with Jon, Christian and Brittany was priceless.

I loved loved loved our time with these wonderful young adults.

In Closing...


I am quite happy that we kind of got stuck here longer than planned (Bob less so). It's a special place. However, it is doubtful that we would ever plan to sail here again (except for potentially a quick overnight rest stop to break up a long north or south passage as seems to be the norm for most sailors). TCI is just not set up geographically or logistically very well for sailors. I do hope to come back someday... traveling by air and exploring the waters from the land perhaps.

How could this be wrong?

Soon it will be time to say good bye to TCI and head for the southern Bahamas.