May 01 , 2007
Portsmouth, Rhode Island
41° 37.25 north
071° 16.12 west

Mailbag From Portsmouth, Part 3 of 3

By Bernadette Bernon

In our past two Logs, we’ve answered your questions about sailing safely offshore, about cruising with children, about the emotional aspects of concluding the cruising life. This week, we include here our last bits of advice to those of you who’ve recently written to ask us questions. Again, many thanks for taking the time to connect with us. Even after we conclude our BoatUS log, in June, we invite you to keep in touch if we can ever be of help to you as you go forward with your own cruising dreams.

Buying Real Estate In The Caribbean

FROM ADEEL A, via email: “ I've immensely enjoyed reading up on your blog over the past year, and while I'm not nearly close to catching up with your latest adventures, let me say that I've been enthralled by your description of sailing in the Caribbean. Couple that with an amazing trip to the countryside of Tobago, and I've been convinced that I would like to have a second home in the islands. It seems like you had at some point contemplated the idea too. What convinced you not to?  In your travels, what areas represent the best value at this point? Unfortunately, people have already "discovered" my preferred choice, Tobago, so I'm casting a wider net. Ideally, a beautiful view of a sunset from a mountain-top perch overlooking a bay where I can see your sailboat bobbing would be what inspires me.”

FROM BERNADETTE: During the six years we’ve been cruising, we've seen many American ex-pats buying land in Panama – either waterfront, or up in the mountains near Bocas Del Toro, on a volcanic lake. Panama is almost like the 51st state of the United States, because we ran the Canal for so many years, and there are so many Americans there already, and so many people speak English. It's still beautiful and remote, however, and at the same time the medical care is at a high professional level in the city, and the shopping is great. Also, there is a large “development” happening on a beautiful hillside near the coastal town of Portobello, Panama. Condos and house sites are being designed with Americans in mind. Buying land in Panama is attractive to foreigners because it’s possible to get clear title to property.

Cartagena offers relatively inexpensive living and scads of condominiums with views of the sea. At night, the old city is always ablaze with lights and activity.

If you like an antique city, with lots to do, Cartagena would be a great place to live. And the real-estate prices are still relatively cheap. You can buy into a modern condo overlooking the harbor and sea, for instance, or you can still buy a spectacular courtyard house in the Old Town, and fix it up, for a small fraction of what the same place would cost here. And the cost of living is cheap, too.

When we traveled through Mexico and Guatemala, we met people who had bought land and built houses. Generally, though, we heard warnings about investing there because of land-rights issues. Apparently, it’s not easy to get clear title to property in those countries.

Two of our friends bought a house on an island in Honduras. They got a great deal on it – cheap enough that they could imagine leaving it there as a place for their extended family to use as a vacation house during the winter.  

Guatemala offers spectacular land sites with majestic views of volcanoes, lakes, and mountains. We were seriously tempted to buy a small piece of land there.

We know an American couple who just built a beautiful house overlooking a spectacular lake in Nicaragua, and they plan to use the house once a year for three months or so. Our friends say that the surrounding land has been purchased by other foreigners, and retirement homes are going up here and there around them. Again, the cost of living is low in Nicaragua.

Americans are buying waterfront land in Belize, too, at good value. Two of our American friends bought a piece of waterfront land, and built a house three years ago, and their investment has more than doubled.

The attraction is that all these countries offer Americans terrific value on their dollar. It’s easier to afford having a cook and housekeeper, for instance. In most cases, you’ll need to have a caretaker working for you – such labor is cheap in Central and South America – and that caretaker keeps the house safe while you’re living part of the year in the States.

This is the view from the house of a friend of ours who bought land in Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. They loved their home there, but when their home was broken into one evening while the man was away, the woman of the couple was pistol-whipped with a revolver and lost many teeth. After the local authorities were uncooperative, they sold their home and moved away. Today they are cruising on their sailboat.

Douglas and I did toy with the idea of buying land somewhere in Central or South America. In the end, though, we didn’t find a place that sang to us – maybe because the most beautiful places, with the best property-rights situations, and the best values, were being populated by communities of Americans, and that made it a little less interesting to us. Plus, we decided that it would be more cost effective for us to just rent a house somewhere that intrigued us for a period of time, rather than deal with being an absentee home-owner.

Weird Food For Thought

FROM CORRINE S., 8 years old, via email: “I was wondering, what is the weirdest food you had to eat while you were out sailing in those other countries ?”

FROM BERNADETTE: Thanks for writing, Corrine. I remember the day perfectly, even though it was three years ago now. We were at Isla Pinos in the San Blas, and it was a very windy day, blowing about 35 knots. This means that all the palm trees had their leaves all blown back so much that from my view on the boat, they all looked like Indian heads in profile, with big feather headdresses. I had laundry out drying, and the wind was so strong that it almost blew all my laundry off the lifelines.

Isla Pinos is a very traditional island, meaning that the little kids aren’t accustomed to seeing tall white people such as Douglas and me, and they start crying in fright when we get too close to them. The island is very pretty. Everyone lives in little thatched huts, and the women wear brightly colored mola outfits. Well, I took in the laundry when it was dry, and when the wind died down Douglas and I decided to go ashore and explore.

Iguana is a tasty meat but quite stringy. Everywhere we went in Central and South America, iguana is a staple of the diet. Wed happily eat it again.

While we were walking around, a Kuna woman invited us into her hut with great excitement. She pointed to two little wooden stools, and we sat down as she busied herself with some cooking, and then put some food on a plate and gave it to Douglas and me. At first, we didn’t know why shy had pulled us inside. Then we realized that this was pure hospitality – she was showing us that she was happy we were visiting her island – and her generosity and openness amazed us.

I looked on the plate. There were some small eggs, about the size of large marbles, and some meat that looked like chicken legs. I smiled. She smiled. Douglas smiled. Her frightened children hid behind the hammock. “Well,” said Douglas, “let’s do it.” He picked up the chicken leg – a safe choice – and started nibbling. I did the same. It wasn’t chicken – I had no idea what it was -- but it wasn’t bad.

Bernadette thought the iguana egg was a bit greasy, but Douglas liked it and ate several. Protein, he claims, is protein.

Then there were the eggs. She actually bit the top off them – the “shells” were very soft -- and they were raw inside! She showed us how we should just knock the egg back down our throats, as if we were swallowing an oyster. Douglas, who’ll try anything, sent it down his gob. Somewhat disgusted, I braced myself and did the same. I thought my guts would come up my throat! All the while, our hostess was smiling and pointing at her dog, who was tied to a post nearby. Good lord, I remember thinking, I hope to God that wasn’t dog meat we were eating earlier.

Sometimes it’s hard to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language as we do. It took us some time to figure out, but finally the three of us made sense of each other. It turns out that her dog was an iguana hunter! The meat we were eating was roasted iguana legs, from a giant iguana hunted down by this little dog. And the eggs, heaven help me, were soft iguana eggs! I felt feint when I heard this, and realized what I had eaten. But at the same time I felt overwhelmed by the generosity of this poor island woman who was so happy to share her treasured meat with two strangers, and to show us how proud she was of her little treasure – a dog who could sniff out iguana eggs. Looking back on it, I remember that although the egg was a totally weird goo inside, the leg was pretty tasty! Corinne, I guess the moral of this story is that you just have to try new stuff all the time. You never know when something wonderful will come your way!

Where Does The Day Go?

FROM MARK H., via email: “I can’t imagine what you do all day on a cruising boat. I think I’d go a little crazy being cooped up on a boat week after week, on an endless vacation.”

FROM BERNADETTE: I know, it’s difficult to imagine the cruising life when you’re living at home. Somehow, though, every day is full on a cruising boat. Here’s our experience. When we were actually under way, sailing, we were totally consumed with navigating; sailing the boat well day and night; taking turns on watch; monitoring the radar to avoid ships, and adjusting our self-steering vane to keep the boat on course; keeping everything on the boat safe, in good working order, and moving well. There were two of us, and so to us the clock measured duration of watch rather than night and day or set intervals; one person was generally asleep while the other was on the job.

Every day at anchor involves some form of boat maintenance, and often that is the focus of the day.

It’s different though at anchor. When we were on hook, our days were more in sync with sunrise and sunset. Early mornings, on the single-sideband radio, we downloaded weather information and spoke with other cruisers. Then we worked on the boat, did routine and endless maintenance, fixed whatever had broken or was wearing out or corroded – a constant challenge on a boat in a salt-water environment. Our division of labor had Douglas handling all mechanical tasks and navigation – a huge responsibility for which I was so grateful. I was in charge of most of the sailing and subsistence responsibilities: I made most of our meals, made yogurt, grew sprouts, handled preserving of food – by necessity, as there’s no place to buy these things in most of the places we liked to go. And I took care of the finances at home, the provisioning, cleaning, laundry, and I assisted with the boat projects that were ongoing every day.

Bernadette is getting ready to snake the radar cable from the bottom of the radar pole into a conduit in the lazarette, and from there it will run to the back of the nav station.

Many days, when chores were done, we put on our wetsuits, hopped in the dinghy, and spent two or three hours free-diving and snorkeling on the magnificent coral reefs – for pleasure, and for dinner. Douglas took his spear gun and loved to hunt fish and lobster. If we were near civilization, we’d go ashore and explore. In the evenings, we marveled at the sunset, made a meal, watched the blackness settle in, and read or just fell asleep early! Sometimes we’d hang out with other cruisers with whom we might be crossing paths. To keep up with news, we listened to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) or the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and sometimes we could get NPR (National Public Radio) on the single-sideband radio. One of the great luxuries of this trip is that we had more time for reading than at any times in our lives, and because we chose not to have a television or VCR, this was a wonderful focus for our leisure.

Reading proved to be one the greatest luxuries of our trip. Cruisers are always trading books and magazines. Unlike a library at home where we collect books, the goal on small sailboats is to make sure the library is circulating and changing.

Once a week, we had a deadline for this BoatUS website, and every month we wrote a column for the back page of Cruising World magazine. In it we took turns writing about the cruising life, what it was like to live aboard, what we were doing, and where we were going. The writing kept our foot in the door of our professional lives, but more importantly, it pushed us to be creative and stay juiced – something that made the cruising experience that much more fulfilling.


Now that Bernadette and Douglas are back in the U.S., any groups or corporations interested in booking them to perform their inspirational slide show, The Radical Sabbatical, can reach them by emailing

For Douglas, the great passion of cruising became spear fishing. The afternoon this photo was taken, he nailed a 24-pound grouper that fed several boats for several days.