January 15, 2004
Mill Creek, Arnold, Maryland
Chesapeake Bay
39° 03.836 North
076° 30.577 West

Reading The Mail In Mill Creek

By Bernadette Bernon

Ithaka is nestled safely against Lori and Jim’s dock in the hideaway of Mill Creek while Douglas and I catch up on a bunch of business. Our old pal Paul has driven out from Washington to spend a few more days with us, and tutor us how to use PowerPoint. With his help, we’ve created a slide show and talk about our cruise, what’s amused, thrilled and bedeviled us, lessons learned and how it all feels. It’s so bizarre to be packing our experiences into a slide show, but we’ve been fortunate to receive invitations to speak at a few boat shows and yacht clubs since we’ve come back to the United States, and we’re excited about that, and about encouraging other boaters to set off on cruising adventures. Yet at the same time we’re overwhelmed as we condense so many experiences and photos into a 45-minute talk, with cues and hundreds of images.

Paul and Douglas take a break from PowerPoint.
We practice our fledgling effort in front of Paul, he makes pages of notes, we go back to the drawing board, present it to Jim and Lori, they make notes, we fine tune, go back to the drawing board, present it in front of anyone who’ll listen, incorporate their notes, tweak. Do it again. And again. Finally, it starts to hum.

Tom and Mel Neale drive up from Virginia to say hello, bunk at Jim and Lori’s, and there’s an instant party. Douglas and I haven’t seen the Neales since Ithaka’s path diverged from Chez Nous’ at the foot of Florida four years ago. For a decade Tom thrilled Cruising World readers with his humor and insight in the magazine’s popular “On Watch” column, revealing to the world all his hilarious vicissitudes. Then, a few months ago, he moved his act over to Passagemaker magazine. We talk about old times, and compare where we’ve all been over the past few seasons. He and Mel whet our appetites about the Bahamas, and we regale them with tales of the Western Caribbean.

Tom and Mel Neale from Chez Nous
Meanwhile, there’s big news for Lori. She’s invited to become the food editor for Passagemaker! We’re thrilled for her, and for our own selfish, good fortune; her always busy test kitchen is about to start rolling overtime. Lori is a “foodie” of the highest order—the finest cook I’ve known. With her first column due within the week, Tom and Mel and Douglas and Jim and I are presented with one amazing array of hors-d’oeuvres after another. Life is good. My pants get tight.

Meanwhile, during the day, when we’re not eating, we have access to Jim and Lori’s internet connection and blissfully hop on and off the web at will. We have lots of emails to catch up on, and this week we have the luxury of time to write, to practice our slide show, and to answer our mail. It’s exciting to find lots of e-mails from BoatUS readers. Thanks for taking the time to send us your comments and ideas. We really appreciate them, and all your support. Thank you, also, for your questions. This week, we’d like to answer a few.

The fabulous presentations of fine foods began coming out of Loris kitchen as soon as she accepted the invitation to become Passagemakers food editor, and received her first deadline.
Also this week, we’ve added a brand-new icon to our selection at left, called “Questions & Answers.” When you click on it, you’ll jump over to our www.IthaksSailing.com website. There, in one place for your convenience, Douglas and I have placed other questions and answers from previous logs, so you can browse through and see if we’ve already answered any questions you may have about the cruising lifestyle. If not, we welcome you to send us an email, and we’ll get back to you. Also on the www.IthakaSailing.com site, you’ll also find the dates of our lectures around the country this winter. As always, thanks for logging on with us.

Privacy? Ha!

“How do you guys manage to live with each other, day in and day out, in such a small space, without killing each other?” asks Hillary S. “Don’t you ever crave a little privacy?”

From Bernadette: In our old lives, we each went off to work every day, had our own unique experiences, and returned home to see one another for dinner. Sure, we had weekends together, where we did a few errands and projects – often alone – then went to the movies together, met friends in restaurants or at each others’ homes. And every few months we’d take a vacation. Well, on a cruising boat, all those bets are off. It’s 24-7, and that can be an overwhelming amount of togetherness all at once, especially when combined with the pressures of the first live-aboard year, when you’re learning all about the boat and about cruising. Sometimes the fur flies, and it’s often just over a careless word, or, as one of our cruising friends describes it, too much “face time” with your loved one. Jerry Seinfeld once said, “It’s only since I got married that I learned that I had ‘a tone.’” Well, if you really want to learn about the importance of tone, move aboard a cruising boat!

Glovers off the coast of Belize
Real privacy is hard to achieve on a boat, plus privacy seems to mean different things to men than it does to women. The female of the species, by and large, craves more private time to attend to ourselves, while the fellows seem able to release their hold on old decorums fairly easily. I remember once, out on Glover’s Reef, Belize, I snorkeled through what must have been a world convention of microscopic jellyfish spores, called Pico-Pico in Belize by the local fishermen. The result was a full-body rash and constellation of welts that made me crazed with itching for five days. To make matters worse, our friend Paul was visiting from the States for 10 days, making our compact 39-footer feel about 10 feet smaller.

One evening, while I was in the full bloom of Pico Pico, Paul and Douglas sat in the cockpit chatting after dinner, and I took the opportunity for some rare moments of privacy and a little space and ducked below into the main saloon to strip down to my underpants, itch, wash my skin, and daub the white greasy cortisone ointment on my spots for some temporary relief. Douglas came below to refill his drink and, trying to be helpful, picked up the ointment and began patting it onto my arm, while I worked on my legs.

The coral reefs are compelling, for divers, snorkellers, and, for a brief time during the spawning season, for pico pico.
“Thanks, honey,” I said as nicely as I could, “but, really, I got it. Go on back up with Paul for awhile, OK?”

Too late. Just then, Paul came below. “Take a look at this,” Douglas said to him, switching on the overhead light so that they could better see my back.

“Ouch,” said Paul, examining my rash of welts. “That’s hideous.”

“Hey, guys!” I cried, grabbing my shirt and groping to shut off the flood light. “Do you mind? I’m feeling like a lab chimp here.”

They looked at me quizzically, shrugged at each other, and climbed back into the cockpit, finally leaving me and my spots in peace. Such are the small dramas of privacy on a 39-foot boat, enacted every day, in different iterations, until there are very few secrets left between you and your partner (and your guests). It’s just something you have to get used to.

Private time is hard to come by on a cruising boat. You grab it whenever you can.
One thing I like to do, to get some private time, is go off by myself once in awhile. I’ll take the dinghy ashore to the vegetable market, if we’re near a town. Or I’ll take the kayak for a ride to the beach, or go ashore for a walk. If Douglas wants to go ashore, instead of going together all the time, as we usually do, occasionally I’ll stay on board and just be quietly alone with whatever project I’ve got going on. These are small moments, that we keep all to ourselves, but they serve us well as we negotiate the delicate dance of full-time liveaboard cruising.

Weather Is The Question

John R asks: “What do you mean when you say you’ve ‘downloaded a GRIB file’ or that you’ve gotten ‘a buoy report’?”

From Douglas: On Ithaka, every day, we get weather information in three ways: one, by observing our barometer and baroscope to note pressure changes in the atmosphere that signify coming weather changes and their intensity; two, by tuning our single-sideband radio into the morning cruising net, and listening to the weather forecast; and, three, through our single-sideband radio, where we download to our laptop weather faxes and “GRIB” files that present forecasts and predictions of what the weather is going to do two or three days out.

GRIB is the acronym for Gridded Binary Data -- a format used by meteorological services to exchange weather data. Using a powerful compression technique, these files can contain a boatload of data and still be tiny enough to travel easily on cruisers’ ever-persnickety onboard e-mail systems (connected through SSB). These GRIB files draw from NOAA’s GFS/AVN global model, and include: surface winds; barometric pressure; 500-milibar (upper atmosphere) winds; surface water temperature; and predictions over 12, 24, 36, 48, and 72 hours. Layered onto a graphic display they are easy to read and incredibly valuable. Often, they’re right, too.

Ithaka gets plenty of weather information onboard while were passage making.
When we say we received a “buoy report,” we’re talking about the www.buoyweather.com (subscription) service, which we access through our on-board SSB radio and laptop computer. We receive specially formatted e-mail messages that include five-day wind/wave forecasts. You can also receive automatic daily forecasts, custom weather chart attachments, NOAA buoy reports, official text forecasts, and five-day passage outlooks. It’s an incredible service, and costs only ten cents per message. The company requests a $10 deposit and withdraws against your account. Buoyweather offers global coverage, and what makes the service so nice is that the user sends in an e-mail identifying either single or multiple latt/long coordinates—depending on one’s needs and interests—and Buoyweather automatically compiles the data for these user-identified “virtual buoys,” all based on a computer analysis of 66 weather charts, and zaps it right back. Like all weather predictions, there are no guarantees, but it’s a wonderful addition for passage planning. We know a number of people on land who also use the system to keep track of their friends at sea.

Plenty of Books To Read

“You guys say that cruising gives you lots of time to read, but where do you get books in English when you’re in foreign countries?” asks Peter S. from Sacramento, California. “Do you have them shipped down or something?”

From Bernadette: The easiest thing in the world is to find good books to read while you’re out cruising. Often there are book-trade shelves in local restaurants where cruisers hang out. You just bring books you’ve read, and take books that interest you. We found great book-trade shelves in Belize, all over Guatemala, in Honduras, in Panama, in Colombia. It’s not a problem.

The book-trade shelf at the Purple Space Monkey, in Placencia, Belize.
When you meet fellow cruisers in faraway anchorages, one of the first things we often ask each other is if we have any good books to trade. Almost always, the answer is an enthusiastic yes. The only hitch is to make sure that your fellow cruiser enjoys the same kind of books you do. Douglas and I always take a quick look at our new friends’ bookshelves before declaring we have a stash to share, as there’s nothing more disappointing than giving away a bunch of terrific books and finding that the other boat offers you a bag full of Danielle Steele! That doesn’t happen often, however. Cruisers, by far, are the most well-read group of people you’ll ever come across. Their boats are, literally, filled with books, and we all love to talk about good stories we’ve come across. For Douglas and me, it’s been one of the real joys of the lifestyle.

Any Dangers In The Wind?

“You’ve been to a lot of places that sound dangerous,” says Reggie P. from Victoria, BC. “Have you ever felt threatened in any way? Do you carry a gun on Ithaka?”

From Bernadette: We’ve experienced warm welcomes and helpfulness in every country we’ve visited. That said, however, over the three years we’ve been out, we’ve heard of boardings and gunfire in Venezuela and Brazil; a stabbing in San Andres; and dinghy thefts in Mexico, Honduras and Panama.

On Ithaka, we don’t carry a gun. Neither of us is trained in how to use a gun, so we’d risk that someone quicker, more skillful, and less conscionable than we are could do us in with our gun while we hesitated before firing it. Self-protection experts agree: you should never bring out a gun unless you are going to fire and kill or incapacitate someone. Guns are not for us. So far we’ve been lucky. If intruders get below, we plan to cooperate.

Most importantly, we avoid areas known to be risky, and take precautions. We always lock our boat up when we’re off it, even if it’s just to go snorkeling. We lock our dinghy with a cable to Ithaka at night, or we haul it up out of the water on a three-point bridle.

For most of our cruising days over the past three years, weve anchored in solitude and complete security near spectacular islands. The people who weve met have been welcoming, generous, and helpful.
The cruising grapevine is a reliable conduit of information, so we know where questionable places are as we move from place to place. For example, as we neared Guatemala, we heard from other cruisers leaving the area that to anchor alone in the Rio Dulce is to risk being robbed. So, when we went into the beautiful Rio, we pulled Ithaka into a terrific marina for only $110 a month including all utilities – well worth the peace of mind. A year later, we heard from other cruisers that the Venezuelan and Colombian coast is a risky place to anchor, that the safest way to travel it is all at once, with no stops. We avoided the area, and went instead to beautiful Cartagena.

Shy of never leaving home, no preparations can shield us from some danger. But we believe that hyper-vigilance promises only a living deadness, not safety. We travel carefully, and accept the risks.

To read about safety precautions aboard Ithaka, great safety ideas from other cruisers, as well as a detailed discussion of cruisers’ self-defense techniques, see “Staying Alive,” our Log Of Ithaka number 85.

Remember, we’ve added a new “Question & Answer” feature to our BoatUS “Log of Ithaka” website. To see all the questions and answers included in previous logs, just click Questions & Answers. We welcome your questions and feedback. Thanks for logging on and joining our journey.