March 15, 2004
Newport, Rhode Island
41° 29.325 North
071° 19.319 West

Catching Up With Boat Work and Mail, In Newport

By Bernadette Bernon

Now that we’re landlubbers for a few months, we’ve made lists of things that need fixing on Ithaka, gear that needs replacement, projects we’d like to accomplish while we’re home. The list is getting longer by the day, and includes replacing the windlass; installing a watermaker; painting the boat – topsides and bottom; building some shelves; getting new canvas bimini, dodger, and hatch covers; installing a new toilet; and replacing some instruments that have bitten the dust.

Douglas in the lazarette, snaking wires for our new ICOM 802 Single Side Band radio.
This is the way it goes on a cruising boat: every four years or so, major items aboard seem to demand serious attention, so it’s important to stop for awhile, haul out, clean out, and give your boat some tender loving care. Much of this work could have been accomplished in one of the excellent facilities in Central and South America. But Douglas and I wanted to spend the time with our families at home while we worked, and also attend to some personal business, and after three and a half years of cruising and living aboard, sailing back home from South America didn’t seem as big a deal as the same distance felt three years before. So here we are, just like that.

Douglas has his head in all kinds of projects this winter, such as installing our new Lewmar V3 windlass
Now that we’re back, Douglas sets off bright and early every morning to Newport Shipyard, a well-known yard in this area, where all around Ithaka are spectacular cruising and racing yachts undergoing their winter maintenance. Aboard many of these elite vessels are their professional captains – each with thousands and thousands of offshore miles under their belts -- engaged in all manner of complicated refits, and overseeing the work of a steady stream of subcontractors. Douglas has adored being amongst these grizzled pros in such a testosterone-filled zone, and it’s been amusing having him come home with stories to tell about “the guys” at the yard, and who said what, and what stories each were telling about their particular boats, races, deliveries, and travels. Indeed, one of Douglas’s happiest winter moments came when one of these wind-blown Brad Pitt types actually came over to borrow a tool from Douglas and ask his opinion on some arcane bit of boat-ology. To put it mildly, my boy was over the moon, and literally skipped off to work the next few mornings like a real gun-slinger. Unfortunately, a few days later, he came home despondent.

One of our chores was to re-bed all the chain plate covers
“What’s the matter, honey?” I asked him when I saw him moping around before dinner. “Did something happen at the yard today?”

“Yeah,” he said.


“The guys. They found out I’m only an owner.”

And there you have it; over yonder at the Newport Shipyard corral, there’s a big difference between the gun-slingers and cow pokes.

It’s been a lot of fun to catch up on our mail since we’ve been home, and this week we’ll answer a few of your questions. It’s always terrific to hear from readers, from those of you planning to set off cruising someday, and from those of you planning extended vacation time aboard your boats as summer approaches. As always, we welcome your input and ideas.

The sea smoke of a cold Newport morning
The Real Costs Of Cruising

“I’ve been reading your log since you first left the United States, and absolutely love it. We want to go cruising someday, too, so here’s my question. What is a typical annual cruising budget?” -- Brent B., Lafayette, Georgia

From Bernadette: This is a question we’re asked all the time. Recently, I did a comprehensive special report for Cruising World magazine’s October 2003 issue on this very subject. I extensively interviewed 12 couples from all walks of life and all income levels to determine what they spend a year to live the cruising lifestyle. I also asked them to fill out a detailed questionnaire on their budgets. The results are surprising.

You can cruise on $1,000 a month, if you pinch Every Single Penny. Or you can spend many times as much. See all the details in Bernadettes comprehensive article How Much Does It Cost To Go Cruising?
Keeping In Touch: Emailing and The Internet

Peter W. who has a Sabreline 36 in the Chesapeake, wrote to ask how we stay in touch via e-mail with home when we’re cruising in the Caribbean, and how easy it is to find internet cafes in Central America.

From Douglas: For onboard email, we use Sailmail (, a relatively simple system. You connect an eight-pin cable from your single sideband radio (SSB) to a specialized Pactor High Frequency modem (about $800 from Special Communications Systems). You cable the modem to the computer’s serial port. Using software provided by the non-profit Sailmail Association, you tune your radio to one of their worldwide network of private stations to send and receive. The fee is $250 a year. The Sailmail Association provides a primer in relatively geek-free language that demonstrates a wry sense of humor -- rare stuff. Sailmail’s technical support is first-rate for inevitable glitches and operator errors.

There are some limitations. With Sailmail, your email address is your You can’t surf the web. You’re limited to 10 minutes a day of connect time (a restriction lifted for emergencies). You can’t send or receive attachments, or files exceeding 10KB (about 1,500 words). Connecting to Sailmail and your baud rates are functions of propagation (including the ever-uncontrollable sun spots), other people using the frequencies at that moment, how well you’ve grounded your radio, and how much idiosyncratic RF (radio frequency) interference from on-board gizmos is zapping around your boat. On Ithaka, for us to send/receive, we must turn off our sailing instruments, GPS and alternator – no big deal. In addition to email, Sailmail allows you to bring down weather faxes, and customized “grib” files -- Grided Binary Data on wind and seas. We also can collect Sailmail from shore-side internet sites.

The Sailmail software and Pactor modem are the same used by Hams on the no-cost Winlink system, so the next step on Ithaka is for me to get my Ham license. Then, we’ll have all the elegances of Sailmail, but with many additional frequencies to connect on. Plus, you can send and receive attachments, and have almost no limitations on connect time.

The trickiest part of the Sailmail system is convincing land-friends not to include us in their mass-forwarding of gooey epiphanies or bad jokes that devour our precious 10 minutes. Other than that, we love the system. Sailmail keeps us in touch with family and cruising friends all over the world, and reliably transmits our stories to BoatUS for our twice-a-month Log Of Ithaka internet column. It’s a winner.

Finding an internet caf in Central America is one thing. Getting a connection, often, is something else entirely.
From Bernadette: Good internet connections are not all that easy to find outside the major tourist centers in Central and South America. As we traveled farther south, internet connections also were much slower. In the Bay Islands of Honduras, on the island of Roatan for example, there was an internet café at the French Harbor Yacht Club, another in Coxen Hole, and another at the town of Oak Ridge; on Guanaja there were two. This was a fairly impressive number of choices. (Keep in mind that the word “café” is a broad exaggeration.) But in all cases they were excruciatingly slow – not at all what one is used to or hopes for.

Just getting logged on down there sometimes can take 10-15 minutes; one day it took Douglas four hours to email eight highly compressed digital photographs to BoatUS for our Log! Once we got a decent connection, wild horses couldn’t pull us away from the computer terminal, and we regularly cursed ourselves for not getting ham licenses, which allow for free and easy email access on your boat anytime day or night! (Note: You can’t send JPEG photo files through the Sailmail system.)

The biggest hassle with slow internet email is having to contend sometimes with hundreds of junk e-mails (much of it advertisements for pornography) which further slows down the system. Douglas says, “I never knew so many people cared so profoundly about the size, well-being and satisfaction of my organ, and I’m deeply touched.” It’s important to have spam blockers on your email accounts to avoid this.

Then, usually, just as we got our inboxes cleaned out, the system crashed and we were told to come back “annudder day” as they say down there. We’d come back a couple of days later, get back online (again, 20+ minutes to get an AOL connection), as quickly as possible try to download the emails from people we know, and get offline before it crashes again. It can take between 3-5 minutes to download just one email, and twice that long to send an email with an attachment. By the time we download all the emails (usually 2-3 hours), we’re beat. We take the precious disk of news back to Ithaka, read the emails from friends, and figure we’ll answer them at the next place we find an internet “café.” Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t happen for three weeks or a month, and then the whole rigmarole starts again.

Staying in touch can be a challenge if you only rely on these internet email connections. Once we installed Sailmail on the boat, our lives got much simpler, and it’s become a highlight of the day to check our email and see what’s in our in box.

I have an AOL account; Douglas has a Hotmail account. We’ve found that one or the other works better to get an internet connection at one of these Third World internet cafes, depending on which country you’re in. Before you go cruising, do yourself a favor, and get your ham license, and then all your e-mails will be free, and there’s essentially no limit on the amount of e-mail you can send a day. If you don’t get your ham license, SailMail is a great alternative.

The main pump and membrane for our new Spectra watermaker now lives in the forward cabin, under the V-berth
Good-bye Gifts For Cruisers Setting Off

We got a note recently from Maryanne M. of West Palm Beach, Florida, who wrote to tell us she’s throwing a good-bye party for her son and his wife, who are setting off cruising this fall. She wanted some good ideas for little gifts the guests could bring to the party.

From Bernadette: Before we set off cruising, our friends threw us a good-bye party, everyone brought us a bottle of wine, signed with a message. So in the months that followed, when we pulled a bottle of wine out of the bilge, it was always a wonderful treat to see who gave it to us, and to read the note they’d written on the label. Other friends brought great books, and inscribed the inside. Again, opening one of these books months later was a wonderful connection with people who we love.

Giving practical cruising gifts to your family and friends can be a challenge. The key, though, is to think PRACTICAL. Here are a few gift ideas in every price range:

  • 12-Volt suction-based Califano fan that you can move around the boat
  • Hand-held depth sounder to use in the dinghy
  • Spear gun
  • Any spare parts or replacement parts you know they need (every boat owner has a to-do list that includes endless purchases of replacement parts)
  • Shorty wetsuit or a very lightweight diving “skin” suit
  • Nigel Calder’s “Refrigeration for Pleasure Boats: Installation, Maintenance and Repair,” and his encyclopedic and essential reference book “Boat Owners Mechanical and Electrical Manual: How to maintain, Repair and Improve your Boat’s Essential Systems.
  • Linda and Steve Dashew’s “Practical Seamanship: Essential Skills for the Modern Sailor
  • Ed Sherman’s “Outboard Engines, Maintenance, Troubleshooting and Repair
  • Scott and Wendy Bannerot’s fishing bible “The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing,

Scott Bannerots book on fishing is a cruising must-have.
  • Kathy Parson’s “Spanish For Cruisers: Boat Repair, Maintenance and Phrase Book”, essential if your son and his wife plans to take their boat further south. Parson is now publishing French For Cruisers as well.
  • Michael Carr’s “Weather Predicting Simplified
  • Paul Humann’s wonderful four volume series “Reef Fish, Reef Creatures, Reef Coral and Reef Fish Behavior”, the best identification books there are.
  • Weekly recordings of favorite radio shows, such as Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, or Fresh Air
  • Copies of music CDs or movie DVDs
  • Sharpening stones
  • Right-angle drill
  • Vacuum packer to preserve fresh foods
  • Extra rolls of bagging material if they already have a vacuum packer
  • A kitchen mallet for conch pounding
  • Good fish-filleting knife
  • An offshore trolling rig, including wine cork, needle-nose pliers, nail clippers, extra squid lure, two bronze crimps, instructions on killing fish, filleting knife, and a bottle of vodka (A splash in the gills knocks out the fish)
  • Zip-lock freezer bags in all sizes
  • Mace
  • Baja fuel filter
  • 100 % DEET insect repellent
  • Loc-Tite, in medium and super strength to help prevent problems from vibration
  • Oxalic acid, to take away yellow waterline, and remove stubborn rust from gel coat and paint
  • Whink, to get rust stains out of fabric
  • Bronze wire brush with slim-taper file for repairing buggered threads on bolts
  • Nicholson round bastard file

The Newport Bridge
  • Liquid Wrench
  • X-14 mildew stain remover
  • Screw extractor set
  • Extension mirror, for seeing underneath and behind things
  • Calipers: metric and standard
  • Ronsonal Lighter Fluid, removes gummy stuff, sticker glue, masking tape glue. Also a good spot cleaner for fabrics (not safe for plastics)
  • Clear “contact” paper, great for waterproofing book jackets and charts, or for making temporary or emergency plaques in engine room, first-aid locker, cockpit
  • Mini Rayvac flashlight with clip
  • Stockings for emergency repairs for broken fan belts
  • Marine -Tex for steel when tapping things
  • Stanley mini hacksaw, for cutting those hard-to-get-at things
  • Heavy Weather Survival Kit: earplugs!
  • Have your son and daughter in law sign up for the online gift registry at BoatUS or West Marine, so that your guests can get them exactly what’s needed.
  • A really cool gift idea for a cruisers’ good-bye party would be a bottle of wine (inscribed) or a book (inscribed) with one or two of the smaller items above tied to it.
  • If you have more ideas, send them to us and we’ll include them in a future column

Bernadette in Belize working on her writing
Mail And Money Management

Peter M of Charleston, South Carolina, asks about how we handle our bills and mail while we’re away.

From Bernadette: There are excellent professional services that many cruisers use to handle their mail and the payment of regular bills. You can find out about them by looking at the back of magazines such as Cruising World; most advertise in the classifieds. In our case, we have a rental house at home, so we need a bit more service than those companies provide (in case something goes wrong in the house, our tenant needs someone to call). So we have a friend we trust in Rhode Island tend to our mail and bills, we’ve given our tenant her name and phone number, and we pay her by the hour. She goes to our post-office box once a week, opens our mail, emails us about anything unusual, pays items that need attention, and makes deposits for us.

We’ve set up all our recurring bills, however, to be paid through the online banking feature in our checking account, so that is maintenance free. And we have our credit cards paid through auto-deduction from our checking account, which we set up while we were home. (We can check our balances from internet cafes while we’re traveling, which is handy.) This leaves only a few items that need personal attention every month.

One thing to keep in mind, is that you need to keep a significant amount of money in your checking account when you go cruising (we keep $5,000 in it at all times) so that you have access to enough cash to cover emergencies quickly or to buy a couple of airline tickets, fast, in cash. This means that you should never, under any circumstances, carry a debit card around with you on a regular basis, or use a debit card for anything other than withdrawing funds at a legitimate bank or money machine – in other words, don’t use it to pay your bill at a restaurant, or in a store when you’re traveling. Keep it tucked safely away aboard until the day you take it out to use it to obtain some cash from a machine or bank. Then put it back in its hiding place when you’re finished using it.

Dollars and sense dont carry debit cards around with you.
Also, keep in mind that debit cards have no transaction fees, so the best idea we’ve heard is to get one especially for use with ATM machines, and keep ONLY a minimal amount in that account, say $2,000. This limits your financial exposure if your card or card number is stolen.

To get our mail while we’re cruising, we wait till we know someone who is flying down, and we ask our friend at home to FedEx our important mail to them to carry down to us. Whenever we meet a cruiser who has a guest flying back to the States, we give the guest our flat, stamped mail. All cruisers are happy to do these tasks for one another, and none of us has ever flown to the States and back without carrying back down with us spares and mail for the cruisers anchored around us. It’s a very helpful and supportive community where everyone helps everyone else.

Thanks for all your input this month. As always, we’re inspired by your comments and questions, and grateful for your encouragement.