February, 2005

With reports this month from Nepenthe on a surprise trip to Malaysia; from Mary Ann II on a nine-month cruise from California to Texas; from Serendipity on another season in the Caribbean; from Suzy Q. on quitting work to sail the Med; from Moonshadow on the Oz's Hami and Hoggie regattas; from GeJa on cruising the French Canals with an Islander 36; from Waterdragon on a budget cruise to New Zealand; from La Puerta on 'anti-snowbirding' in the Caribbean; and lots of Cruise Notes.

Nepenthe - Folkes 39
Tom Scott
Kuah, Langkawi, Malaysia
(The Peninsula)

The South Pacific cruising season started normally enough.

In May, Nepenthe and I set sail from New Zealand for the tropical islands of the South Pacific. Shortly after our arrival in Fiji, my old friend Tavida graciously extended an invitation to several of us sailors to join him for dinner. Tavida is now the headmaster of a secondary school located between Lautoka and Ba on the north coast of Viti Levu, but when I first met him many years ago, he was the captain of a fishing vessel. He is a most imposing gentleman, as he stands about 6'7" and weighs about 280 pounds!

Not too surprisingly, Tavida's student charges were widely held to be models of proper deportment, for when the need arose, he could be very stern. But to us, he was more like a gigantic version of Peter Ustinov - hugely expansive, with a magnificent sense of humor, and a seemingly limitless ability to mimic personalities of the day. We had gathered in the main room of his house and were enjoying a few Fiji Bitters before the promised meal when Tavida stood and gave a short speech.

"Ni sa bula! Welcome to my home, my friends. Before we get started, I must make an apology of sorts. I had promised you that I would prepare the crème de la crème of all the world's hors d'oeuvres: sea anemone a la Tavida. A truly unforgettable dish. Sadly, however, my son has had a mishap with our boat and was unable to gather the required key ingredient from mother sea. I am afraid we will have to do without them this evening. But never fear, for I know that Leone, my dear wife, has prepared sufficient food to satisfy the hungriest of sailors."

Before continuing, Tavida fixed a steady gaze. "After all, my friends," he continued throwing wide his arms and booming out, "With friends like these, who needs anemones!?"

Yes, he's a funny one. But it was not Tavida's excessive hospitality, nor the ensuing extended kava/beer hangover that was responsible for what followed. It simply seemed like a good idea at the time - although later I would have some doubts. The 'it' being a plan to sail to Thailand or Malaysia nonstop via the Arafura and Timor Seas, and then up the west side of Sumatra, a journey of some 6,000 miles. This unusual route has the advantage of avoiding Australia, Indonesia, and the Straits of Malacca. The plan almost worked, and here's a short version of it:

Brisk southeast winds followed me from westward across the Pacific, making for great downwind sailing. It was a romp! The Torres Strait was truly a singlehander's nightmare, however, as there were low-lying reefs everywhere. It's an easy place for a sailor, particularly a singlehander, to come to grief. Once on the west side of the Straits, the wind held for a few days, and then more or less quit. Save for a few days near Christmas Island, the wind stayed somewhere between light and nonexistent for the rest of the trip. It was very, very slow.

I had been 42 days at sea when I made landfall at Christmas Island, which is owned by Australia. I was very promptly informed that I was eligible for detention - jail - and a huge fine, as I had no Australian visa. When the four officials arrived to thoroughly search Nepenthe, I pleaded the 'law of the sea', and was given time to get fuel and water. In truth, the latter was getting very low. I was also in need of a few cold beers, although I'm not certain the 'law of the sea' covers the need for alcohol. Nonetheless, one of the local Aussies gave me a tour of the island, and showed me the new concentration camp - we're supposed to call it a 'detention center' - that's being built on Christmas. Inside were a bunch of folks he understood to be Vietnamese. I did not wear out my unwelcome.

The rest of the trip took another 3+ weeks in light and fitful winds. The doldrums/convergence zone ran from about 4 degrees south to 3 degrees north. Yuk! I had reserved the decision of whether to make landfall at Phuket, Thailand, or Langkawi, Malaysia, until the last minute. It turned out that the winds for the latter were marginally better. The voyage took a lot longer than I wished, but all things considered, it was a success. That is I'm still alive and well, and Nepenthe is still afloat.

Upon arrival at unfamiliar places, I usually try to learn a few words of the local language. When I got to Langkawi, I got some local money and headed for the grocery store. I'd had enough of 'Captain's Surprise' and my 'Canovers' for a long while. For those of you who don't know, a 'Canover' is a can of something served over a can of something else. Anyway, it was thus not totally surprising that I learned my first Malay word in the aisle of the grocery store. It was Ubi Kentang - meaning potato. While this word is hardly sufficient for deep philosophical conversations, it can elicit some amusing facial expressions. Try it. Walk up to someone and say 'potato' and nothing more. Then just wait and watch what happens. Most folks have never realized what confusion a simple word like that can cause.

- tom 12/15/04

Readers - We have no idea why veteran circumnavigator Scott suddenly decided to bolt from the South Pacific to Southern Asia. But we do know it was only a short time after he got there that the tsunami struck. Fortunately, Scott and his boat were unhurt. He was in Malaysia. More in Cruise Notes.

Mary Ann II - Yorktown 35
Jed & Monica Mortenson
San Diego To Texas In Nine Months

My wife Monica and I participated in the 2003 Ha-Ha aboard our 1974 Yorktown Mary Ann II, and continued cruising until just a few months ago. We'd been planning to
send Latitude updates on our progress, but just never got around to it. Both Monica and I were astounded at how busy we were cruising. Between provisioning, boat maintenance, and a lot of exploring and adventures, the days just filled up. So I'll try to give you a super synopsized version with a few of our highlights.

After the Ha-Ha we headed south along the coast of Mexico, then on to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. After going through the Canal, we sailed down to the San Blas Islands, up to Providencia Island, over to Honduras and Guatemala, up to Belize and Isla Mujeres, and finally arrived in Galveston, Texas in August of '04. Here are some of the highlights:

The Baja Ha-Ha - What a great way to kick off our adventure! Not only did it set a firm date for our departure ("Oh God, how will we be ready in time?!" everyone says. But don't worry, you'll make it.) The Ha-Ha also gave us a circumstance in which to met a ton of great people - who we continued to run into in little anchorages months down the road.

Mazatlan - This was one of our favorite stops. The cruiser community and 'palaptics' of the three marinas just north of the city were amusing for a short time, but the quiet of the old anchorage south of town and the charm of Old Town Mazatlan are the real reasons to go.

San Blas - I hesitate to mention the infamous 'Captain Norm', but San Blas is a lovely little town, and Norm is certainly no reason not to go. He is regarded by both the locals and the ex-pats as a bit of a joke. Just ignore him and go explore the town or, embrace the adventure, go meet this harmless character and say 'hi' - then ingore him and go explore the town.

Sayulita - This little gem of a town is a relatively short bus ride north from Puerto Vallarta. We spent a wonderful Christmas Day here with friends Janna and Graeme from Dragonfly and their families. The town was a bit crowded with tourists, but I would imagine it's paradise in the off season. It has good waves for surfing, too.

Guadalajara - What a beautiful old Mexican town with a European feel - and well worth the effort needed to get there. We left our boat in Paradise Marina in Nuevo Vallarta, rented a car, and drove to Guadalajara for New Years. There was a full orchestra playing a free concert in the main plaza the night we arrived. Wonderful!

Mexico's Gold Coast - I won't say much about this area because everyone else raves about it, too. And they're justified in doing so. Anyone planning to cruise Mexico should set aside enough time to fully explore the fantastic 175-mile stretch of coast between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.

Barillas Marina, El Salvador - This is a great little spot to rest up after crossing the potentially dangerous Gulf of Tehuantepec and from which to explore inland El Salvador. Heriberto, the marina manager, could not be friendlier or more helpful. He and the marina make checking in and out of the country a snap - which is a pleasant change after Mexico! One caution - the bar of the river that eventually leads to the marina can be an E-Ticket ride under the wrong conditions. At one point, two waves doubled-up under us, then dropped us sideways back into the water. The skipper of the powerboat motoring next to us called on the VHF to report that I'd done a good job cleaning the bottom - except for having missed a spot at the very bottom of the keel. He could see it!

Monteverde, Costa Rica - The cloud-forest of Costa Rica is worth the molar-rattling bus ride to get there. We left the boat at the yacht club in Puntarenas in order to make the trip. Make sure to do a zip-line tour, as flying through rain forest canopy hundreds of feet in the air is a real rush!

Drake's Bay, Costa Rica - An amazing, secluded, ruggedly-beautiful anchorage, with miles and miles of phenomenal jungle hiking in every direction.

The Panama Canal - Man, what an experience! This was my third transit, and blew my mind as much as my first. It was also my first time through on my own boat, so that added an order of magnitude of stress - but also of pride after we made it through successfully. On the way through the narrow Gaillard Cut, we had to rescue a French boat which had lost her engine. Yes, Americans rescuing the French yet again! (Sorry, I couldn't resist!) We pulled them from the jaws of possible disaster, as they were dead center in the narrow channel and there was a giant car carrier coming the other way.

Because I was a line-handler for the transit, Monica - who had never done more than a trip to Catalina before this adventure - manned the helm the entire way through the canal, even downlocking with the disabled French boat tied alongside. I was so proud of her! Even Alex, our Canal Advisor, told me how impressed he was with her helmsmanship.

Portobello, Panama - It seems as though a lot of people rush through or by this little town on their way from the Canal to the San Blas islands - but it's an incredible spot and deserves more time. This is where the Spaniards loaded their galleons with stolen gold before sending it back to Europe. Talk about 'pirates of the Caribbean', this was the real deal! Sir Francis Drake sacked and burned the town in the 1590s, and Captain Henry Morgan raided it in 1668. The well-preserved ruins of not one, but several, Spanish forts still stand guard over the bay. One could easily spend a couple of days hiking around the ruins. And don't miss the smaller and less-visited watchtower forts high on the hills on both sides of the bay.

Rio Dulce, Guatemala - The trip up the narrow, jungle-covered gorge of the river between Livingston and Fronteras is unbelievably beautiful. The town of Fronteras boasts several marinas and has swallowed the anchor of many cruisers who have been here for years - maybe too many years. We left our boat with the friendly folks at the Catamaran Marina, and took a bus to see the awe-inspiring Mayan ruins of Tikal.

Belize - Monica and I are both divers, so we really loved Belize. On one dive we descended toward the reef and found ourselves surrounded by seven nurse sharks and several grouper. Too cool! We also enjoyed some of our best sailing here, as we'd have 15 knots of Caribbean breeze on the beam and be skimming along the glassy waters inside the barrier reef. Picture perfect! It's not, however, a good place for a deep draft boat. We went aground a couple of times, but always on soft sand or mud, and we were always able to get ourselves off. We spent several weeks in water that was never more than 12 feet deep, and frequently even less. As we draw 6.5 feet, this was starting to elevate my blood pressure.

Isla Mujeres, Mexico - Although it's a fairly touristy little spot, it still has charm. The main draw is that the Paradise Marina is a very inexpensive and friendly place to leave your boat if you wanted to go to Cuba. Not that we went there, of course, because that would have been illegal.

Our San Diego to Texas itinerary in nine months had us moving faster than most cruisers, but given our limited time and budget, I think we did a good job of balancing our desire to cover a good chunk of ground with our need to relax and explore each new spot.

Once in Galveston, we pulled the mast and cleared the decks in preparation for having the boat trucked back to California. A couple of weeks later, Mary Ann II arrived at the KKMI yard in Richmond, and after getting her bottom painted and mast stepped, she was once more in the Pacific. Having lived in L.A. for the past 15 years, my wife and I have relocated to San Francisco. Our boat now sits happily in her slip in Emery Cove Marina, and we are very much looking forward to exploring the Bay by boat. So be sure to look for us out there - we'll be on the beamy, 30+ year-old 'Clorox bottle' of a boat that everyone else is screaming past. But we'll be enjoying ourselves!

- jed 12/01/04

Serendipity - Peterson 44
Barritt Neal & Renee Blaul
(San Diego)

We thought an update might be in order since you're in St. Barth as we write this, and last season you interviewed us in St. Barth.

We spent the hurricane season in Venezuela, thankfully dodging the bullet Ivan that hit Grenada. We had Serendipity Awlgripped while in Puerto La Cruz at the Aqua-Vi Marina and Boatyard. Both hull and topsides were painted, and we were completely satisfied as the old girl just sparkles. We liked the price also. Everything - including four new thru-the-gunnel scuppers - came to a little less than $7,500 for our Peterson 44. And that included $1,700 worth of paint. It gets better. The yard didn't charge for the haulout, for any of the two month's worth of laydays, and they even put on the new bottom paint for free. The yard and marina manager is Victor Diaz de Leon, an avid sailor and racer. He speaks fluent English, runs an efficient yard, and he and his crew know the boat repair and maintenance business.

Puerto La Cruz is the yachting center for Venezuela, and the marinas stay pretty full. A slip is about $300/month for a boat like ours. Fuel and gas prices are subsidized by the government and are in the 20-cent range. That's not a typo, as it's indeed about 20 cents U.S. per gallon. Nearby Isla Margarita is duty-free and the provisioning is excellent. The stores are Costco-like and prices are great. The dollar brings about 2,400 Bolivars on the black market, down from 3,100 last May. Black market prices abound for almost everything - including airline tickets. Renee and I flew home - Puerto la Cruz/Barcelona to Caracas, then Caracas to LAX - for $650 each round-trip on TACA, which provided good service.

We enjoyed cruising the Venezuelan offshore islands. Aves was our favorite, as it had crystal clear water, interesting bird life, and plentiful lobsters. In fact, one six-pounder bloodied me badly in quite a battle. The only downsides of Venezuela are a rising incidence of robberies and the ongoing political turmoil.

We will be heading back to the Virgins at the end of February for another swing through the island chain. Our plan is to be in Trinidad for the hurricane season, then do the ABC Islands - Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao - prior to going back through the Canal to the Pacific.

- barritt & renee 12/30/04

Suzy Q. - Wauquiez 45
Joe & Susan Altman
Doing The Med
(Aromas, CA)

We quit our jobs - Susan after 15 years at West Marine, and Joe from a Silicon Valley high tech company - and moved aboard our boat in the South of France in May of 2004. Then, after completing some boat work, we cast off in the middle of June and headed east. From the Côte d'Azur, we crossed the Ionian Sea to the Italian island of Elba, where Napolean was first exiled. We then continued down the Italian coast and around the 'boot'. Highlights of this part of the trip included Port Grimaud near St. Tropez, the Tuscan Islands, Rome, Ischia, and Naples. We then crossed the Ligurian Sea to Corfu, Greece, before continuing on to the southern Aegean Islands. We're now in Marmaris, Turkey, having covered 1,500 miles in four months.

As this was our 'shakedown cruise', we learned a lot along the way. We were surprised by the weather extremes of the Med. A common saying is, 'There are two kinds of boats in the Med, motorboats and motorboats with sticks'. And how true! We motored 75% of the time between France and Turkey. When there is wind, it can be extreme, going from Force 1 to Force 6 in a matter of minutes. This really keeps you on your toes.

There seems to be no speed limit in the anchorages or marinas of Italy, and boy do those people go fast! When you have several boats whizzing about, the anchorage turns into a washing machine. We were most surprised by the marinas in Greece. Most of them were almost completed - meaning having everything but water and electrical hookups - and offered excellent protection. But oddly enough, they were abandoned in the sense that nobody was managing them or collecting money for staying in them. This certainly helped our cruising kitty.

We were also pleasantly surprised by the wonderful people we met along the way. The people of Italy, Greece, and Turkey were particularly friendly. Although we were strangers in a strange land, the locals we met were very nice and helpful. For example, one night at a sidewalk cafe, a local entertainer serenaded us with a rendition of When The Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie, That's Amore - sung in English rather than Italian. Although we didn't always speak the local language, overall we managed to communicate with sign language and a smile.

We're headed back to Turkey for the winter for some boat upgrades, and then we'll travel west toward Spain in April.

- joe & susan 12/20/04

Moonshadow - Deerfoot 62
George Backhus
Spring Break For Adults In Oz

The travel brochures describe the weather in Queensland, Australia, as "beautiful one day, perfect the next." The thing is, it's really true. In the three months I've been here, I can count the less-than-perfect days on one hand. This is probably the reason that hundreds of yachties come to the Whitsunday Islands each spring from all over Australia, New Zealand, and a few other countries, to compete in either or both the Hog's Breath 'Tropical Shirt' Regatta and Hamilton Island Race Week - aka, the 'Hamo and Hoggie's'.

Nevermind that many of the top yachts and sailors from Australasia are here, that sailing conditions are nearly ideal in the warm, gentle trade-winds, that the Whitsunday Islands make for attractive rounding marks, that Airlie Beach (Hoggies) and Hamilton Island are rockin' post-race party venues, or that throngs of comely 'racer chasers' show up to mix with the sailors. It's just plain fun - and the closest thing to Spring Break for those of us who went to college before Spring Break was invented.

I sailed in to Airlie Beach a few days before the start of the Hog's Breath Regatta after a 600-nautical mile coastal cruise north from Brisbane, my Australian port of entry. Airlie is billed as "the gateway to the Whitsundays", and is a vibrant little township full of backpacker's (budget travelers) accommodations, inexpensive pubs and eateries, and scores of brochure-flinging agencies hawking all sorts of travel and adrenaline-inducing activities in the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef. After a month of unhurried cruising, I was keen to get my own adrenaline flowing by doing some yacht racing, so I cruised the docks at Abel Point Marina in search of a ride for the regatta.

I caught up with mates Anthony and Jeanine, owners of the Farr 38 General Jackson, who I'd met during the Auckland to Noumea Race. They were looking for crew, so I signed on as a headsail/spinnaker trimmer for the seven-day, nine-race regatta.

While half the crew were pick-ups, Ant, our skipper, did an excellent job of getting the best out of the crew and boat in the conditions. We managed all single-digit finishes in a division of 14 boats, and finished the series with a one point victory in the PHS (second) Division over Auckland sled Hydroflow. The Kiwi sled had been celebrating a record run - less than four days - in the Auckland to Noumea race. Hydroflow's navigator, who managed to misinterpret the course sheet on one race and (apparently) the tide/current chart on another, was tossed into the drink by fellow crewmembers after the last race. In yacht racing, as in many other sports, a team player is only as good as their last victory.

The atmosphere of the Hoggie was laid-back and cheerful, with many crews kitted out in matching tropical shirts. On the other hand, the sailing schedule was pretty rigorous, with races on six out of seven days, and multiple races on two of those days. We were on the water from five to eight hours a day, so time and energy for spirited socializing was minimal. In fact, there was barely time for a couple of rum and cokes at the Mt. Gay Party marquee each day before it wound up at 6 pm. For those looking for a big night, the party would usually carry on at the Whitsunday Sailing Club, the official yacht club of the Hoggies, or at the local Hog's Breath Cafe, the regatta sponsor.

With just one lay-day in between the two regattas, we sailed the 20 miles from Airlie to Hamilton Island, where I caught up with my Auckland sailing mates and fellow crew from Formula One. Ellen, Kevin, Jan and Neil had all flown over to race with me aboard Moonshadow in Hamilton Island Sailing Week.

If the Hog's Breath is the pork ribs of the two regattas, Hamilton Island is the filet mignon. It is billed as the premier regatta of the Southern Hemisphere, attracting nearly 200 yachts, mostly from Australia and New Zealand. Among the entries were Grant Wharrington's 80-foot sled Wild Thing, Stuart Thwaite's 100-foot maxi Zana, as well as a plethora of lesser known boats - such as my Deerfoot 62 from Sausalito. On the water, both regattas feature some great racing. Off the water, they are as different as beer and champagne.

First off, the average price of admission is about 50% higher for Hamo. It's not hard to see where they spend the extra bucks, either. As you arrive in the Hamilton Island Marina, there's a guide boat to take you to your assigned berth and assist you with tie up. Then a hostess arrives with a logo'd cooler full of chilled Hahn Premium Beers and a race packet. The daily post-race party at Hoggies ended at 6 p.m., while the one at Hamo featured a live band going till 4 a.m. - preventing some crew from taking the racing too seriously. There were two fireworks displays during the week, as well as three aerial displays by an Australian precision flying team. At Hamo, they sweated the niceties. For those having a few beers on board after the race, there was a guy with a bin walking the docks, collecting empties and garbage. During sundowners, there was a live jazz band on a pontoon boat serenading the moored fleet. Hamilton Island's township - with its shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs - is essentially incorporated into the marina. With nearly 200 yachts and more than 1,000 sailors in attendance, the atmosphere was hugely festive.
The quality of racing in both regattas was excellent. Plagued by light winds in the Hoggies, we were forced to sail some shortened harbor courses around laid marks on two of the race days. Hamilton Island's more offshore location in the middle of the Whitsundays makes it more favorable to setting courses around islands according to wind speed and direction. The Hamo racing was a bit better organized, nonetheless, the starts for the 99 boats in the cruising divisions were nothing short of kamikaze missions as the combined beam of the fleet was easily three times the width of the average start line. Add a breaching whale or two into the picture, and it all got verrrrrry interesting. I'm sure there was a lot of paint-swapping going on, particularly in the light air.

In fact, during the second race, we managed to take out the bimini top, solar panels, and flagstaff of the appropriately named smaller yacht Helter Skelter, which had underestimated our speed and gybed onto port - giving up any rights - before she was clear ahead of us. Neil, on the foredeck, calmly pushed the boat clear, handing the other owner all his gear back, while notifiying me that Moonshadow had come through without a scratch.

On the last start, we were boxed in, with a choice of going over the start line early or hoping that the slower moving boats in front of us would part like the Red Sea. Being the eternal optimist hoping for a temporary acquittal from the laws of physics, I opted for choice 'B'. Either my prayers were answered, or else the skippers ahead were looking in their rear view mirrors and decided to observe the 'tonnage rule'. We found a small hole and got the committee boat end of the start line within a second or two of the start gun in clear air, then narrowly missed a breaching whale for our best start of the regatta. There were lots of high fives on board after that one!

The Cruising Division of Hamo had two lay-days during the week. This gave us a bit more rest and less stress, and allowed the crew to spend some time enjoying the lovely tropical resort facilities and social activities on Hamilton Island. Throughout the week, we made friends and added a few more crew who brought various skills to Moonshadow - including sailing expertise, local knowledge, 'snacktics, and ornamental. True to our form, we didn't win the regatta, but didn't lose the party.

- george 12/10/04

GeJa - Islander 36
Dick & Shirley Sandys
Doing The French Canals
(Palo Alto)

Our boat spent the winter of '04 on the hard at Port du Gapeau, near Hyeres, France, while we enjoyed a mild winter in California. When we returned in April, we found that she'd been moved, and the trailer on which she was resting was tilted. It made it hard to work and sleep on her. So we recaulked our forward hatch, filled our U.S. propane tank from our French bottle, and deferred the rest of the maintenance.

(About transferring propane from a French bottle to a U.S. bottle: You need an unregulated gas line with the French connection at one end and the U.S. connection at the other end. Then you position the full French tank above the U.S. tank, and open the valves. There is an escape valve on the U.S. tank, which must be opened a little to let gaseous propane bleed off while the liquid propane gravity feeds from the French tank to the U.S. tank. It's a smelly business, so it's appreciated if you're downwind of other boats. We transferred 5 kg of liquid propane this way in less than two hours.)

Once relaunched, our first stop was the Porquerolle Islands. Mooring buoys were available for early arrivals, and we were able to go ashore for dinner. There are some beautiful anchorages around the islands for swimming and fishing. From here we continued on to Toulon, La Ciotat, La Frioul (opposite Marseille), and the French Navy haulout facility at Port St. Louis. We had our mast hauled out at the navy yard, and the workers were most helpful. We left the mast on the hard so we could take GeJa exploring on the French Canals.

We passed through our first lock at Port St. Louis, which rose about two feet to the level of the Rhone River. It was July 10, and shortly thereafter we spent six hours motoring up to Arles. The current at that time of year averaged about one knot against us. Arles only had limited space to tie up, so we rafted next to our Danish friends Karsten and Moody aboard Nicoya. From there, it was just a short walk from our San Francisco-based Islander 36 over the bridge to the lovely medieval town. It turned out we were in time for the Arles Music and Photography Festival. While later walking from the city, we found Van Gogh's countryside - white carmague horses, sunflowers, and gothic bridges.

On a windy day we left for Avignon, again against a one-knot current. We went through a 55-ft lock. Once you tie up to the floating bollards, negotiating a lock is no problem. We arrived at Avignon in time for the Theatre Festival. It was fun walking the streets and seeing all the parades and performances. We also enjoyed exploring the Palais des Papes, which is where all the popes hung out in the 15th century.

Following Avignon, we made our way back down the Rhone River and entered the Canal du Rhone au Seta at St. Gilles. This friendly village is home to a lovely 12th century abbey. We got a little stressed in the canal, as it was often as little as two meters deep, and our Islander draws 1.5 meters - and sometimes more. It was also in this canal when we came across our first 'do-it-yourself' lock. We had to tie off before the lock so Dick could run ahead and translate the instructions. Thanks to the help of a friendly French family fishing from the bank, we got it right. You press one button to expel the water from the lock. Once we entered the lock, it automatically cycled - if we were patient - to let us out the other end.

Arriving at Boucaire/Tarascon was one of the highlights of our summer. We scouted out good restaurants, watched the Tour de France go by, and found a nearby patisserie across the footbridge on the way into town. On a typical day, we'd have coffee and croissants while we read the Herald-Tribune until 11 a.m., saunter about town visiting cathedrals, arenas, and colorful markets, followed by a walk through town in the cool of the evening.

Aigues-Mortes, a small, walled medieval town, was another one of our favorite stops. We tied up below the Constance Tower and walked the impressive ramparts. Within the thick walls of the city were Gothic churches, restaurants, fountains, and shops. There seemed to be musicians serenading us from every corner. Many canal barges tie up at Aigues-Mortes, and it was always wonderful to have a pleasant chat with Americans on them. Some have been on the French canals for 20 years! We started hitting bottom about this time, so we turned back to retrieve our mast at Pt. St. Louis, having been in the canals for about a month.

Further along the French coast toward Spain, we stopped at Santa Maria de Mar, Sete, Guissan, and Rousillon. Crossing into Spain, we stopped at Llanca, Cadaques, and Port Rose. The latter is a new and very pleasant harbor - but at 42 euros a night was very expensive. We finally found a place on the hard at Emperiabrava and left GeJa to her winter fate. We then took a train from Emperiabrava to Barcelona, and enjoyed that picturesque city for a week. On this part of the trip, our best harbor was Sete, which had a small mountain to hike in the middle of town, and seafood restaurants where we enjoyed Coquilles St. Jacques, salmon, mouelles, and prawns. If we shopped around, we could get all these seafood delights at a reasonable price.

We returned to Palo Alto on September 15, just in time for the Bird boat fleet's annual race on the Bay. Nothing sails like a Bird!

- dick and shirley 12/06/04

Waterdragon - Islander 34
Graham Ashlock & Taryn Ettl
Opua, New Zealand
(Berkeley, California)

It's been over two years since we left Berkeley aboard our Islander 34 Waterdragon to join the 2002 Baja Ha-Ha. In addition to wanting to say 'hello' to all our sailing friends back home, we'd like to encourage all the young and not very wealthy folks out there to go ahead and go for your cruising dreams. We left the U.S. with $3,000 and a 30-year-old boat. It's true, this did necessitate leaving our boat at the then not quite open Puesta del Sol Marina in Nicaragua for eight months while we worked aboard a dive boat in the Channel Islands during the summer of 2003, but it was still good to get going.

We spent three months cruising 'The Forgotten Middle', which is Central America between Mexico and Costa Rica. There are a lot of great stops in this area, and we don't think it gets the publicity that it deserves. Detailed notes on the anchorages along this stretch of coast can be downloaded from our website at www.waterdragon.us.

After Central America, we continued down to Bahia Caraquez, Ecuador. Steve Cherry of Witch of Endor and Bob Willman of Viva! have both written in Latitude proclaiming what a great area it is. And it's everything they said - and more! We came intending to stay for three days, and stayed for six weeks. A month of that was spent doing land travel in Ecuador and Peru. It was while in Ecuador that we obtained our visas for French Polynesia. It required two trips to the consulate and $23 each.

We left Bahia Caraquez for the Galapagos and Marquesas in early May of '04, prepared to have all kinds of problems with officials when we got to French Polynesia. Wrong! When we got to Nuku Hiva, we had the easiest, quickest, cheapest, and most friendly clear-in to date. It took us 10 minutes to fill out a Customs declaration and cost us 50 cents to send it to Papeete. Three months later in Bora Bora, we again had to spend 10 minutes and 50 cents. We were never required to post a bond, and were never hassled in any port along the way. Most of the cruisers we spoke to had similar experiences. Those who arrived without visas did have to post bond, but were granted three months on the spot.

We had hoped to spend cyclone season working in Pago Pago, American Samoa, but were disappointed by what we found upon arrival. The wages are low, the harbor is only pretty from a long distance, and the bulk of the resident cruising boats seem to be there out of necessity rather than choice - and will probably never leave. So we escaped for New Zealand before the Waterdragon could be sucked into the Pago Pago vortex. The place did have one redeeming quality - the U.S. Postal Service. Taryn's mom has kept up the subscription to Latitude that we gave her when we left, and the last 10 issues of Latitude were waiting for us there. That alone made huffing tuna cannery fumes bearable for a week.

Our passage to Vava'u, Tonga, was rough. Our passage from Vavu'a to North Minerva Reef was even rougher, including 34 hours hove-to in near gale and gale force winds. Minerva is one of those places that you would not believe existed if you didn't have a sailboat to take you there. Our stop at Minerva reminded us why we left to go cruising in the first place.

Minerva is in Tongan waters, which turned out to be good for us, as the day we pulled in there was a Tongan Navy vessel anchored there. I dinghied over, said hello, and asked if they might sell us some diesel. The chief mate asked how much I needed. I told him 30 liters. He looked at me strangely and then asked, "Three zero liters?" I nodded, and he laughed. He told me I could have 30 liters for free. I guess they use that much just warming up the engines.

Getting this fuel saved me on the home front, because the night before Taryn and I had had a bit of a 'discussion' regarding my desire to motor. The wind had gone light, but was still on our nose. Since we'd already spent five days and nights covering just 400 miles, I had no interest in spending another one at sea with just 45 miles to go to Minerva. Needless to say, I turned on the engine. But with the leftover slop, I could only make three knots.

Taryn woke up and asked me what the #%&!*# I was doing wasting fuel when we were still so close to the tropics. She said if we were going to get caught in a gale - which was highly probable on the 1,200-mile passage to New Zealand - she'd rather it happen in the tropics where it was warm. Since we only carry 34 gallons, I guess she had a point. Nonetheless, I paid her no mind, and motored the rest of the way to Minerva.

We arrived in New Zealand after an 8.5-day passage of calms and headwinds with just 12 liters of diesel in our tank. So I guess it was lucky I'd been able to buy the 30 liters at Minerva. This is especially true because a few days after our arrival it blew 50 knots in Opua, and we met a boat that had been knocked down during the storm offshore and suffered a lot of damage. So thanks to the Tongan Navy, Taryn and I are still happily together planning the next leg of our adventure.
Dragon's 'Best Of' List: Best surfing destination - San Cristobal, Galapagos. Best dive stops - Fakarava Atoll in the Tuamotus, and North Minerva Reef. Best stop - Suwarrow Atoll, Cook Islands. Best sailing destination - Tuamotus.

- graham 12/05/04

La Puerta - Malö 41
Richard Stone & Friends
(Tucson, Arizona)

We all know that snowbirds are the folks from the frigid parts of the U.S. and Canada who head to Florida or Arizona in the winter to escape frigid winters. Richard Stone describes himself as an 'anti-snowbird', because when winter comes, he leaves his home in Tucson. Of course, he doesn't leave for Michigan or Manitoba, but rather for his boat in the Caribbean, where it's even warmer than in Arizona.

Although Stone has lived in Tucson - which he loves - for the last seven years, he'd previously resided in the Bay Area for 25 years. In the early '70s, he lived aboard the 36-ft gaff schooner Najaz in both Sausalito and San Rafael. He says living in San Rafael was even better than hip Sausalito, because a neighboring boat was Dino Valenti's lovely 65-ft schooner Brigadoon. Since Valenti was the lead singer in the terrific rock group Quicksilver Messenger Service, there were often interesting people around and fun things going on.

After co-founding and working in an environmental consulting business in Tucson for a number of years, Stone ultimately sold out his interest and is now retired doing his anti-snowbird thing. He's able to offset many of his winter cruising expenses by renting out his home in Tucson to snowbirds. Sometimes the tenants are professional baseball players who come down to get in shape for the season and for Cactus League play. With his home producing income, Stone can relax and cruise the Caribbean with his sweetheart Kareena Hamilton.

Back in 2000 - when the dollar was worth about 35% more against the euro - Stone ordered a Swedish-built Malö 41 sloop. During the next eight months, he flew to Sweden three times to oversee construction and make various decisions - such as picking the single mahogany log from which the entire flawless interior woodwork was made. He and Kareena ultimately took delivery of the dark-hulled beauty at Port Grimaud - a winch handle's toss from St. Tropez - in February of 2001.

The couple anticipated a terrific summer of sailing the Med - but were badly disappointed. "We were looking forward to a great sailing experience, but hadn't realized how inconsistent the wind is in the Med," admits Stone. Sure, the couple thought places such as Barcelona, Mallorca, and Ibiza were wonderful, but the lack of good sailing was a major letdown. And that wasn't all. "When we got to Italy, the boat boys made life extremely frustrating. We felt as though we had to continually watch our asses, and that really took all the fun out of it."

So in November of 2001, Stone, Kareena's grown son Jason, and another fellow set sail across the Atlantic for the Caribbean. There were good signs from the outset. "I saw a right whale on December 31, which is my birthday," says Stone. "The next day was Jason's birthday, and he saw a right whale on that day, too." Although it was just the three of them, they sailed aggressively, and had a great trip. "La Puerta is a slippery boat, so we made the 2,800 miles to Antigua in 16 days."
For the last three summer seasons, Richard and Kareena have cruised their boat up and down the Eastern Caribbean. Typically they'd start down south in Grenada, work their way up to the Virgins, then cruise back down to Grenada to put the boat into storage for the summer. "We love St. Barth and the south end of Barbuda, and the Tobago Cays in the Grenadines are to die for. And both Antigua and St. Martin are good places to get boat work done."

Last summer, Stone took a major risk by leaving his boat in English Harbor, Antigua, during the hurricane season. He did this in part because Kareena's son Jason was there, having taken over the old Colombo's restaurant in English Harbor and reopening it as the Calabash. It's doing very well, thank you. But because La Puerta was left in the so-called hurricane zone, the Alliance insurance policy was invalid. So what happened? Not a single hurricane came near Antigua, but Ivan decimated Grenada, which is outside of the supposed 'hurricane zone' and hadn't been hit in 150 years. The folks at Alliance told Stone that almost all the boats they insured were in Grenada, because the insurance was valid there, and all but about 20 of them suffered major damage or were totalled.

Let's see, Stone's been on the right side of currency fluctuations and hurricanes, so he must be doing something right. Maybe it's retirement. Many folks who retire at a relatively young age complain that they become bored and lose their passion for living. It hasn't been that way at all for Stone, who retired in '01. "I love being retired! It means I don't have to know what day it is, and I get all the time I want to sail and read. You have to remember that just because you're retired doesn't mean you're not going to do anything. Kareena and I are very active. In addition to all the many things we do, we try to get in at least 45 minutes of snorkeling a day to keep fit."

We asked Stone if he was recommending that everybody retire and go cruising. "Absolutely!" he responded with a laugh. "Everyone should quit work and cruise - it's wonderful."

Since they are retired, Richard and Kareena have plenty of time to have friends come with them. For example, when we met them in St. Barth, they were sailing with Dennis Hamilton and Diane Hamilton. Why so many Hamiltons? "My sweetheart Kareena used to be married to Dennis, who is now married to Diane, but we all get along very well." We're from Marin, so we weren't surprised.

Richard and Kareena's future sailing plans surprised us. "Having spent three winters in the Caribbean, we've figured we've pretty much done this area for awhile, so we're thinking of sailing back to the Med this summer. It's true that we didn't like it the first time, but this time we'll know what to expect and won't be surprised."

No matter where they go, they'll be taking their cool new 10-ft Carib dinghy, which is canary yellow. The distinctive color supposedly will make it less attractive to dinghy thieves. In a sense, Stone 'stole' it himself, paying only $1,800 for the hard-bottom beauty in the Caribbean.

- latitude/rs 01/08/05

Cruise Notes:

No news has not been good news. Mexico's President Fox made a promise last fall that mariners would only have to check in and out of Mexico, but no longer when just going from one Mexican port to another. Such a change has been much awaited as the current system is a tremendous waste of cruisers' time and money. Alas, as of our going to press in the third week in January, there has been no change. Furthermore, inconsistancies persist between different ports. For example, if you clear in or out of Nuevo Vallarta, you're not required to use a ship's agent to handle your paperwork, but at Puerto Vallarta, which is just five miles away, you must use an agent. While many folks are happy to use agents, their fees can sometimes double the already high cost of clearing. So pray for change!

With all the various high-powered water-taxis, jet skis, dinghies and other craft buzzing around Cabo San Lucas Bay without any safety rules being enforced, it was just a matter of time before someone got killed. And according to Jim Elfers, it happened at 9 p.m. on January 18, when two Americans were involved in a serious boating accident. As we went to press, we were unable to find out what kind of accident it was, but it claimed the life of Richard Deniston of Brinton, Colorado. Deniston's 18-year-old son was injured, but survived. Please be careful out there, particularly with or around vessels that can travel at high speeds.

Given the fact that most people won't slow down in dinghies, pangas, and jet skis, the next two items should be noted carefully:

"Before leaving on this years Ha-Ha, I wanted to take an advanced First Aid class," reports Audrey Schnell of Oz. "I had difficulty finding one until I came across the Medicine At Sea class taught by Dr. John Murphy of the Maritime Medicine Training Institute. I can highly recommend the class. There isn't much out there between the Red Cross CPR class and a six-month EMT training course. This one fills the gap."

"In the December story Bad Place To Break Down, you asked for input about evacuation services," write's Timothy Vienneau of the Richmond-based Mental Patience. "For sailors who enjoy spending time under the water as well as sailing on it, membership in the Divers Alert Network provides emergency evacuation coordination and coverage, and a host of other benefits, to assist members who become ill or injured while in remote areas. The price is very reasonable at $44/year for a family, and covers both diving and non-diving incidents. For complete information visit their website at www.diversalertnetwork.org.

"It's a hot and muggy day here in Cartagena, Colombia, where our 30-ft cat is stern-tied to the dock at Club Nautico," report Bruce and April Winship of the Alameda-based Chewbacca. "It's almost Christmas and we and our daughters, Kendall and Quincy, are struggling to remember where we stow our 1-ft tall plastic Christmas tree on such a small cat. Our four years of cruising have gone by in a blink of an eye. Our girls are now nearing the preteen years, while we parents are approaching middle age! But beginning with the Ha-Ha in 2000 - where we were lucky enough to be thrown together with some knowledgeable cruisers, many of whose paths we still cross, and many others of whom we keep up with via email or the cruiser grapevine - it's been an extraordinarily good four years of cruising. In fact, we're putting together a summary for the next issue of Latitude. But don't think we're done, as this year we're heading to the Western Caribbean."

We distinctly remember you folks from 2000 at Turtle Bay, the first stop of the Ha-Ha. The beach party had just ended, and you and the then-quite-young girls were struggling to get into your dink, through the surf, and back to your rather small cruising cat. It didn't go so well, and the four of you, plus most of your stuff, got soaked. We remember feeling so sorry for you, figuring that your cruise was going to end in an eruption of frustration, possibly before you even made it to Cabo. We're thrilled that you proved us wrong! But please be careful out there when leaving Cartagena, as your cat is still relatively small, and that part of the Caribbean can be pretty nasty.

It's official, advise the folks at the Hidden Port YC at Puerto Escondido on the Sea of Cortez, there will be a Loreto Fest again this year! The dates are April 28, 29, 30, and May 1. (Be aware, this is a correction to an earlier report in Latitude that the Fest wasn't going to start until the first week in May.) The status of the Loreto Fest had been in doubt for several months because starting last fall, and for the first time ever, mariners were being charged for not just using moorings in Puerto Escondido, but for even anchoring there or even in the nearby Waiting Room. Not only were they being charged, the prices are what we consider to be extremely high. Fortunately, the Hidden Port YC folks have been able to negotiate a special rate for all boats, no matter the size, during Loreto Fest - $55 for seven days. We're also told there will be some anchoring in the 'ellipse', with APR fees, and some boats will also be able to anchor off Rattlesnake Beach for free. As always, the event will kick off on Thursday with the Ham test, and there will be lots of music by cruisers. The Hidden Port YC folks are looking for committee people for all the various aspects of the event, and advise that it would be helpful to them if they could get some idea of how many people might attend. So it would be greatly appreciated if you could take a minute to RSVP to www.hiddenportyachtclub.com. This has been a much-loved cruiser event for many years, so we hope it can thrive despite the current adversity. After all, the big winners have always been the local schools and other charities.

Here are some other dates to remember in the tropics:

February 3-8, Carnival in Mazatlan. Nobody does Carnival in Mexico like Mazatlan, so you don't want to miss it.

February 28, Paradise Marina, Pacific Puddle Jump Party, for those going across this year only, sponsored by Latitude and Paradise Marina. (Check out the report early in Changes from Waterdragon on how the officials in French Polynesia have become soooo much nicer to U.S. cruisers.)

March 11, Banderas Bay, Pirates for Pupils Spinnaker Cup. Everyone gets to dress up like pirates and wenches for the 12-mile spinny run from Punta de Mita to Nuevo Vallarta, and all to raise money to support the local schools. Bring your own boat or jump on one of the big cats. We hope to have at least 40 folks on Profligate alone.

March 12-15, the 13th Annual Banderas Bay Regatta. This is not-too-serious racing for cruisers in an idyllic environment with wonderful conditions - and a heck of a lot of fun. Entry is free, and it gets you a 50% discount on berths at Paradise Marina. We'll be there - and hope you will be, too.
For folks lucky enough to be sailing in the Caribbean, there are many great events, but here are the biggest dates for sailors:

February 3-8, Carnival in Trinidad, the second biggest Carnival in the world after Rio, but many say it's the best. Having seen Port of Spain in full Carnival splendor, we believe it. The minute one year's Carnival is over, the Trinis start preparing for the next one. There are also many lesser Carnival celebrations throughout the Caribbean.

March 4-6, the 25th Annual Heineken Regatta in St. Martin. The racing ranges from just-for-fun to hard-core depending on what class you're in, but the drinking, dancing, and partying are all extreme. In addition to the crews of the 235 or so boats, the whole island gets into it. Jimmy 'The Harder They Come' Cliff headlines this year's entertainment.

April 14-19, Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, in Antigua. A very classy event for the world's most classic yachts. Go to www.antiguaclassics.com and check out the photo galleries, and you'll know why you have to do this at least once in your life. Spectacular!

April 24-May 30, Antigua Sailing Week, Antigua. This is the granddaddy of all big sailing events in the Caribbean, and remains the standard for having a great time sailing in great conditions. Unlike the three-day Heinie, this is a week-long enduro - 'Ouch, my liver!' - so no wonder it marks the end of the season in the Caribbean.

"Charlie's Charts and John Rains' Mexico Boating Guide both have reliable information for the anchorages and marinas in Mexico that we've been in," write Bill and Cynthia Noonan of the Half Moon Bay-based Island Packet 380 Crème Brûlée, "but both guides are way off with respect to the welcome you'll receive at the Acapulco YC. The only other berthing option is Marina de Acapulco, which has been badly-damaged by storms, has docks in very poor condition, and is without power and water. Maybe the Acapulco YC welcomes John Rains delivering a megayacht and recording his experiences for the next edition of his cruising guide, but Joe Schmoe sailors-on-the-move like us get quite different treatment. We arrived in Acapulco Bay after a 20-hour passage from Zihuatanejo, having tried to contact the club by phone for two days to reserve a slip. Nobody answered the phone. We repeatedly called by VHF the morning we arrived, kept getting put off, and were finally told to anchor. Anchoring was tricky, as it was among derelict boats, many on moorings, and the water was 60 feet deep with the bottom covered in garbage. We were miffed, but thought we could handle it for four hours until we could see the club's Harbormaster. When we dinghied in at noon, he told us there were no available slips. We told him that we were disappointed, but as we were members of a reciprocating yacht club, we would like to have access to the club's facilities after a long passage. He told us to come back late that afternoon. When we did, he said he would handle guest privileges the next day, but would start the 10-minute checking-in formalities right then. The next day he completed our check in/out, which went smoothly. When I asked again about access to the club, he reluctantly gave us crew cards good for that day at a cost of 242 pesos - or about $22. The joke was on us, as the club is closed on that day! As for the cost of checking in/out, plus IVA tax, plus privileges, it came to nearly $90 U.S. Our conclusion is that the Acapulco YC does not welcome transient cruisers. In all other Mexican marinas we've been to, the boats' homeports were all faraway places. But at the Acapulco YC, almost all the boats are from Acapulco - the few exceptions being megayachts that obviously bring in big bucks to the club's treasury. It's obvious that the marina is tight on space, however it wouldn't be a big deal for them to place five or six moorings out for visitors, even if they cost $20-$30/night - use of the facilities included. Acapulco is the only bad experience we've had in Mexico, starting all the way from San Diego. Our recommendation? Pull into Bahia de Marquez, about six miles to the south, and anchor there without having to check in at all."

Our experience with the Acapulco YC - over a period of about 25 years and twice in the last two years - is that they, like all the big clubs in big cities in the U.S., are woefully short of berthing. In addition, the Acapulco YC is and has always been the one and only yacht club of Mexico's wealthy and ultra wealthy, and its members pay $50,000 U.S. to join. As such, you might understand that the club's number one priority is not finding transient space for the hundreds of cruising boats that come down from the States, but finding space for members' boats. And yes, as is the case with many of the major yacht clubs around the world, particularly in the Third World, who you are and what boat you have does make a big difference.

Having said all that, we've always found the staff of the Acapulco YC - the three honchos of which have all worked there for nearly 40 years - to be extremely pleasant - although not 'cruiser casual'. And that if we were to treat them with deference and respect, and anchored out for a couple of days - we've dropped the hook in worse places - they might eventually find a slip that opened up for a day or two. It's our impression that the harbormaster has an impossible job of trying to fit everybody in, but does the best that he can. As for the $22/person day user fee, it's clearly stated on their website. We've never spent more than a few days at the Acapulco YC, but we've always found it to be an enjoyable oasis in a very large and exciting city. And maybe it's because we bought lunch and a couple of drinks at the bar, but we've never assessed the day fee for spending our days around the club and hanging out at the pool. We're sorry your experience wasn't as good, and appreciate your identifying another option for cruisers when in the Acapulco area.
A couple of months ago, Garth Jones of the Mulege and San Carlos-based sailboat Inclination, and Ken Holmes of the San Diego and San Carlos-based sailboat Antares, claimed to have caught a 300+ pound marlin from a 14-ft skiff off San Carlos, Mexico. How could we possibly believe such a fish story when the photo they sent wouldn't open up in our email? See the new photo on this page for the reason that we now believe!

"Fear of pirates in the Caribbean?" ask Randy and Lourae Kenoffel of the San Francisco-based Moorings 500 Pizazz, who have been cruising the Caribbean for many years now. "It's been over four years since we last cruised the Colombia coast, but in that time we would guess that over 100 boats have travelled east to west, and probably another dozen have gone east each year. Does the fact that three boats have had serious problems with armed pirates in the last two years make that coast unsafe for cruisers? Is it unsafe to live in Oakland when someone gets murdered nearly every day?"

"Since we returned to the Caribbean in July of 2004," the couple continue, "we have had two dozen boats come by and thank us for providing them with information about the Colombian coast so they could make their own decision about whether to use that route. They all said they had enjoyed the few stops they made, and didn't know of any cruisers who stopped having had problems. We don't feel that any one person - or Latitude 38 - can say that Colombia is not safe based upon a few incidents. Yes, there are always areas of Colombia that cruisers should avoid - Barranquilla/Rio Magdelena has always been one of those, as even the Colombians don't stop there."

"Maybe we are the 'fools', the Kenoffel's go on, "who wrote some information and gave other 'fools' the impression that Colombia is an OK place. We'll say it again, that everybody should make their own decision whether to transit the coast of Colombia. And no, we are not saying that Colombia is entirely safe. But there are also many boats that arrive in Cartagena with blown sails, broken booms, and serious boat problems. If they had been aware of places they could have stopped along the coast to rest or make repairs, maybe the damage wouldn't have been as great. We think the weather, not pirates, is the biggest problem along the coast of Colombia. There are a few times during the year where there commonly are weather windows - late April to early June, and September until the end of October. Cruisers should use those weather windows."

We don't think we ever accused you of being "fools" for sharing your helpful knowledge about the coast of Colombia, but we do think the security situation is different now than when you wrote it. Three serious incidents with guns in two years when only a relatively small number of boats transited that coast? It may not seem like a large number for you, but that and the history of the region are enough to make us seek other options. Indeed, it's for that reason we avoid certain parts of Oakland - and other California cities with violent reputations. But we agree, once they have the facts, it's up to each person to make his/her decision.

We agree that for most cruisers, the weather along the coast of Colombia will normally be a bigger threat than pirates. As for weather windows, the percentages are higher in some months than in others, but we might disagree with you about which months those are. When Profligate went eastward across the Caribbean, meaning into the wind and seas, in December of 2003, when you suggest there won't be weather windows, the conditions were much milder than when we sailed westward with the wind and seas across the Caribbean in early May of 2004, when you say there should be a window. Indeed, we don't believe any cruising boat could have made any progress going east early last May.

"Everyone should know that the cruisers in Bahia Caraquez, Ecuador, got together a few times and shared information on their inland travel and cruising in Panama," writes Joe Scirica and Pipsqueak the ship's cat of the Redondo Beach-based Beneteau 40 CC Music, which is currently in Balboa, Panama. "Here in Panama, there have been groups of cruisers sharing information on Ecuador, the Galapagos, and the Darien Jungle region of Panama. Mary Heeney of the San Francisco-based Passport 42 Ace has put together a very comprehensive document called Beyond Panama. And Marsha of She Wolf has assembled a lot of information based on their extensive travel in and around Ecuador. What a great group to be cruising with!" We'll have a more detailed report on the last two year's of Scirica's cruising, which saw him travel from Central America down to Ecuador, then out to the Galapagos in company with John Kelley and Linda Keigher of the Seattle-based Sirena 38 Hawkeye, then back to Panama. It's really amazing, because the whole business of stopping at Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua really didn't start until about three or four years ago. As for the reported paradise of Bahia de Caraquez, which is said to be the ideal base for explorations in Ecuador and Peru, that's only been popular the last year or two.

"Joan and I haven't written in a while because we've been doing things like going to the dentist every few days to take care of teeth problems we've neglected," writes Blair Grinols of the Vallejo-based 46-ft catamaran Capricorn Cat. I had to have two bridges replaced, so I didn't get home from the dentist until 10 p.m. last night. I needed some gum surgery, too, and also had to have a root canal done on the tooth that holds the bridge. Joan had a tooth go bad that held a bridge, so the bridge had to be removed and the tooth pulled. Now she has to have a new bridge made. Going to the dentist is never good news, but listen to these prices. We were charged $26 for my surgery and $26 for my extraction. It was $263 for each of my bridges, and $162 for a three-root root canal. Joan's bridge will probably cost a little more since it's more complicated. Nonetheless, the money we will save by having the work done down here versus up in the States will pay for this year's season of cruising in Mexico."

"Greetings from Nevis in the Eastern Caribbean," write Jim and Jamie Casey, who chartered a Beneteau 473 from Sunsail Yachts. "We spent a week in the Virgins, then continued on to St. Martin and St. Barth before coming to Nevis. It was here that we had a rendezvous with friends Ken and Nancy Burnap of the Santa Cruz-based Super Maramu 53 Notre Vie. They arrived in Antigua last week after sailing across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands. We're having a great time on Nevis, hiking the volcano, tasting the French wines, and chasing down fresh baguettes. We're looking forward to Christmas at Majors Bay in St. Kitts and hiking through the petroglyphs in Bloody Gulch. The latter is where the Brits and French showed a singular cooperative spirit in wiping out the last of the Carib Indians on St. Kitts - just three years after the first whites arrived. We'll be looking for you guys in St. Barth on our way back to dropping off our boat in St. Martin."

The cruising season is in full swing in both Mexico and the Caribbean, so we'd love to get short reports from all of you. Please don't forget to include your full name and a couple of .

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