Tuning In, Before Tuning Out

By Bernadette Bernon
May 4, 2001
Bluefield Range, Belize
17 13.597 N 88 05.346 W

Some cruisers, especially those who've been "out" for a while, say they couldn't care less what's happening in the world anymore. Actually, Douglas feels more and more like this each month. I still like to know what's going on, but it's not always easy to do so. Now that we're getting a bit more off the beaten track since Cuba, we're finding that international newspapers are about as rare as internet cafés. So, whenever we've found one or the other over the past couple of months — which has happened in only three places: Isla Mujeres and Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, and in San Pedro, Belize — we've indulged ourselves. Usually the newspapers we find are about a week out of date, sometimes more. But, it's funny, the timeliness doesn't really matter to us anymore; I buy them and gobble up almost every word. The magazines, usually, are dog-eared hand-me-downs given to us from other cruisers who may have had guests visiting from home. We absorb them as though we were dry sponges in the rain. Onboard right now, for example, we have a New York Times Sunday Magazine from February 18 and an old Time magazine from before the election. Mostly, though, we're getting our news from the BBC through the single-sideband radio — it's not our own idiosyncratic and wonderful National Public Radio, which I do miss, but it's a grand world perspective.

Photo of Douglas downloading email in Isla Mujeres Douglas downloads email in Isla Mujeres.

Newspapers and magazines are one thing, but whenever we find an internet café, well, that's pay dirt. Douglas and I park ourselves in front of a couple of computers, pick up our e-mail, catch up with our friends and family, surf the web, then check out our "Log of Ithaka" column on the CW site. It's always fun to see the Logs come to life in full color on the Cruising World screen, with all the pictures and captions in place, and then read the reader letters that have arrived in reaction to them. This is great fun and means a lot to us out here. After we check the letters from you, we sometimes check out the CW Bulletin Board, as it's pretty amusing to find out who's been saying what on different subjects, and who may have gotten on the wrong side of the "Denizens," as that core group of CWBB users call themselves. Pity the poor souls who do; over the past year since we've been posting these Logs, we, too, have found ourselves the target of the odd slings and arrows.

At our last internet stop in San Pedro, we downloaded lots of e-mails from readers. Thanks to everyone who's sent us notes and shared with us their personal stories and dreams. We're saving every single one. Over time, we'll do our best to answer those letters from people who have specific questions for us; a few, which are likely to have general interest, we'll do our best to answer here in the Log.

The Communications Game

Many "Log Of Ithaka" readers tell us that they're on their one- or two-year countdown before going cruising, they're excited and nervous, and they're in heavy "consumer" mode when it comes to buying major boat gear. They want to know about our recommendations for, among other things, equipment for communicating back home, which seems to be a common concern. First, please see Dan Piltch's up-to-date article in the March issue of CW for details on the best systems. Douglas and I hired Dan as a consultant when we were outfitting Ithaka, which was money well spent; he's an excellent resource. His phone number in Maine is (207) 871-1575: his e-mail address is During the first few months that we lived aboard Ithaka and traveled the U.S. East Coast, I remember that communications was an issue of paramount importance. We needed to make an enormous number of phone calls — to manufacturers of gear that didn't work, to suppliers from whom we were trying to buy new equipment, to bluewater insurance companies from whom I was getting quotes, to our investment guy to whom we'd given some of the proceeds from our recent house sale, to Cruising World about everything from glitches with rolling over my 401-K, to discussions about writing assignments I had due, to details about my COBRA health insurance. During this time, Douglas and I also found that our AT&T cell-phone service was spotty, verging on useless. Often from the boat at anchor, particularly in the southern states, we just couldn't get a connection. So, every few days, I found myself planted in front of a payphone in the cold, usually outside of some grocery store or laundromat in the boonies, my papers and notebooks arrayed around me, trying to get answers or information from my various calls. It was not a task I look back on with much amusement.

Abstract painting of fishes

One day in particular last fall, I sat on a cement sidewalk, outside a popular-looking waterfront fish restaurant in Solomon's Island, Maryland, trying to use a pay phone mounted under a Plexiglas hood that was about four feet off the ground. It had been all I could find, and I was, as always, pressed for time. So, starting at about 11 a.m., I squatted, then eventually sat on the ground, under the hood, and began making my calls. Soon, I was on a roll with no idea how much time was transpiring. Eventually, it must have hit lunch time, as lots of smartly dressed people began flocking by me into the restaurant, some glancing over at my bags of stuff, my papers tucked under different parts of me to stop them from blowing away in the wind, probably my head-to-toe attire of damp fleece. (It had begun to drizzle.) More time passed, as I was put on hold, called people back, tried new numbers, all the hellishness of trying to get something done on someone else's schedule. Eventually, strolling out of the restaurant, came the gaggle of women dressed for the office, out for a Friday lunch on the town, who I'd seen going into the restaurant not too long before. Wow, I thought when I saw them emerge, what the heck time is it anyway? I smiled over at them, and glanced at my watch, thinking nostalgically back upon my own set of office memories, just a few months behind me. Egad, I realized suddenly. It was well after two.

Just then, one of the group said a bit too loudly to her companions. "Look at that woman on the ground." (Was that a whiff of disdain?) "She's still on that phone..." And then I distinctly heard giggling.

"That's right, baby!" I barked over, and they all straightened up a bit, and stepped a little farther away from me. All right, I suppose I looked a sight. At 3:30, I concluded my last calls, gathered up my things before Happy Hour began at this bloody place, and shuffled back to the boat, cursing the inconvenience of trying to communicate through the normal channels, at the normal times, through pay phones when you live on a boat. Yes, ease of communications is an important consideration, especially your first year out cruising, as you have so many loose ends to tie up, manufacturers to talk to, and family to reassure. (While in the States, be sure to get a great cell phone service with no roaming charges.)

Now, on Ithaka, and outside the States, we're fortunate to have a Globalstar satellite phone for communicating (judiciously), mostly with our families. It works very well. We also have Inmarsat C for satellite e-mail (absolutely flawless service, which we use pretty much only to send in our Logs every week), and an SSB (worth its weight in gold to get invaluable information from the Northwest Caribbean Net every morning). If we had it to do over again, we'd also get our ham licenses, so that we could access more frequencies, more connections, weather on demand and free and efficient e-mail service. We still may do this sometime over the next year or so. Radio Shack sells the manual you need to study for the now-less-stringent ham exams. Yes, you can add an e-mail function to your SSB — such as the SailMail service — without a ham license, but in the crush of time we never did.

Photo of a book-trade shelf Whenever we stopped for fuel on the ICW, and the marina had a book-trade shelf, we'd find old New Yorkers addressed to Steve and Linda Dashew, who must have been just ahead of us on the trek. In San Pedro, Belize, we were thrilled to find New Yorkers on a book-trade shelf in a local eatery, until we discovered they were our own, dropped off in Isla months before.

If having voice communications is important to you, but you don't want to invest in a Mini-M system or a satellite telephone, there's another excellent option. Martin S. wrote to ask us how my brother, Mark, in Newport, Rhode Island, was able to call us on Ithaka's single sideband while we were in Cuba, to tell us about his daughter Hannah's imminent heart surgery. (Although we have the satphone, Cuba blocks its signal within their airspace, so we weren't able to use it there.) Knowing about the signal block, and not wanting to be completely out of touch for two months, for $50 a year, Douglas and I signed up with WLO, which presents the weather on SSB channels 405, 419, 607, 829, 830, 1212, 1226, 1607, 1641, several times every day. We gave each of our family members the WLO phone number, (334) 666-5110, and told them to call it if they ever needed us.

Just before each of their free weather reports, WLO announces the names of boats for which they are "holding traffic." One day, when we checked the weather, we heard WLO announce that they were holding traffic for Ithaka. We immediately called WLO on our SSB, identified ourselves, and they told us Mark had called them about an hour before, and that he wanted us to call him anytime. We asked the WLO operator to make the call immediately. He did, and Mark answered the phone. WLO patched it through our SSB, and then Mark and I had a crystal-clear conversation about Hannah. If you miss a weather broadcast, WLO will repeat this traffic message before every single weather broadcast until you hear it and call in, for seven days. It's a great service, and it really gives you and your family peace of mind. See WLO's website at

One last thought on this subject: Internet cafés may be rare birds out here, but pay phones are everywhere, so we suggest that before you go cruising, get a Pocketmail device to pick up your e-mails over the phone. It's a cheap, small, and dependable device. If you're in the United States, you use a free 800 number that connects to an automated voice prompt telling you to hold the device up to the handset of the phone. The device quickly proceeds to pull down the messages from your Pocketmail e-mail address, which you can read later on the device's screen. From out of the country, you access the automated prompt through a special number, which means you'll have to pay long-distance charges, but they'll be minimal, as you're only on the phone for a few minutes at the most. Monthly service charges are modest. Last year, we bought the unit (made by Sharp) through a limited-time deal; the device itself and one year of service cost $150. I believe you can still buy the unit for about $120 at Office Max or Office Depot, and the monthly service, depending on the options you select, only run about $10 to $15 a month — well worth it. By the way, Pocketmail worked like a charm in Cuba.

Offshore Boat Insurance

Jack and Marla M., of Grand Rapids, Michigan, just wrote to tell us that they're about one year from their cruising departure on their Manta 40 cat, and they wanted information about boat insurance. Many people lately have e-mailed us to ask if we have boat insurance and, if so, what kind, and this topic also is a frequent discussion among cruisers out here in the field. We do have insurance for Ithaka. First, we had BoatUS insurance while we were in the US, and always had excellent service from them, at the most competitive rates. (We also have their full towing insurance — a must for the ICW.) Unfortunately, BoatUS didn't offer insurance for bluewater cruising, so as we sailed down the East Coast and got ready to head out to Central America, we had to look elsewhere for that coverage. This ended up on my list of chores so I got quotes from several reputable companies that had been written up in Cruising World, as well as a couple of companies recommended to us by cruising friends. All the companies we called were agents (underwriters) of Lloyds of London. We ended up going with World Marine Underwriters in Dana, Florida, who gave us the most competitive price, had no problem including unlimited time in Cuba in the package, and was always efficient and friendly about returning our phone calls. We paid the one-year premium and set off. A few months later, however, we became intrigued with the idea of spending some time in the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. I called World Marine to find out about adding this to our "navigation limits," they called Lloyd's, and it was rejected for coverage, leaving us with a dilemma.

Photo of the virgin Mary There's insurance, and then there's insurance.

Fortunately, some cruising friends we'd met out here told us that they'd just gotten full Lloyd's insurance that included leaving their boat in the protection of the Rio Dulce for hurricane season. We called our friends' agent, Derick Brundick at Able Maritime Yacht Insurance in Jacksonville, Florida, who turned out to be one of the most professional, efficient, pleasant men with whom I've ever done business. He has an intricate knowledge of the different insurance syndicates under the vast Lloyd's umbrella, and which one to call about what, so that he gets the answers he wants for his cruising clients. On top of that, when he knows you're a cruiser, and you're calling long-distance from a pay phone, he seems to drop whatever he's on and takes your call immediately. Within days, Derrick had gotten us approved for "Lloyd's unlimited navigational coverage" (which includes the Rio Dulce during hurricane season), we'd received a fax copy of the binder from him at Able, and we officially cancelled our policy with World Marine (with our thanks). World said they'd send a full return of our unused premium within the week. Now we have unlimited coverage through Able for a year, which means we can leave Ithaka wherever we want to leave her for hurricane season, for about the same price. I highly recommend this agent and this company. He's gaining an impressive reputation among bluewater cruisers, and with good reason. Here's how to contact him: phone (888) 607-9572, or (904) 384-7001, or email

Ithaka is anchored snugly amongst a cluster of little cays called the Bluefield Range, which are tucked inside the safety of Belize's great barrier reef. Off to our starboard side, in the distance, are our friends on Simba and Flow, resting peacefully in this pond between the cays. To our port side, again at a nice distance, is Tom and his family on Resilience, a 54-foot Chris White custom cat. We all have our private space here in this mangrove oasis. What a great relief this anchorage is, after the drama of Mexico's exposed shores.

Indian and computer cartoon

At 5:00, all of us are going to dinghy in to shore, where a fellow named Finn, who lives alone in a stilt house out on one of the cays with his rottweiler named Puma, and his German shepherd named Nanook, is going to make us a feast of grilled snapper and shrimp. We've heard from other cruisers up the line, who've stopped here for a few days and gotten to know Finn, that Puma and Nanook hate outboards, and try to bite dinghies propelled by them, and that we should turn off our engines well before reaching the dock, and that Finn is a "crazy old Norwegian" who spent his colorful life in the merchant marine, and that he just lost part of his foot to gangrene, and he loves having yachties visit, and that he knows everything about sailboats, and he's a fabulous cook and raconteur extraordinaire, and, well, I can't wait for dinner. There, we'll learn more about all these things, and for now anyway, far from newspapers and internet cafés, we'll begin to get acquainted with the remote cays of Belize and all the characters they hold.