Family Magazine

Passage Notes: Westbound Across the Caribbean

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem

Sailing wing and wing

Totem is sailing toward sunsets again. Turning towards the Dutch Antilles from Martinique was more westbound than south. This passage brought back more than a familiar angle for sunrises and moonsets: it’s also…

  • downwind sailing for the first time in 18 months
  • first passage with more than one night at sea in 18 months
  • a nearly full moon! so nice on a passage, and something we had a knack for mis-timing
  • new destinations, instead of retracing a track

The 470nm distance was slightly awkward. It’s just long enough to necessitate a third night at sea. The benefit is a chance to get back into a passage rhythm that’s been absent for some time, something that seems to happen around the second or third day.

The start was slow; it took time to get out of the wind shadow of Martinique. Once into steady trades, the genoa was poled out and Totem took off. We spent almost the entire passage that way, much of it wing-and-wing. Leaving on a Wednesday, arriving on a Saturday, conditions were such that sometime by Tuesday we found that point on the passage when sea becomes a dreamscape to roll with indefinitely.

Sailing in company were our Australian friends on Utopia II, a boat we first met in Malaysia more than four years ago. Our boats have an uncanny ability to stay in proximity on multi-day passages, a highly unusual situation (normally, one boat horizons another within hours of departure). This proximity proved invaluable the morning after our first night at sea when Utopia lost steerage.

Sailing back to aid Utopia

Sailing back to aid Utopia

They were about three miles from our position, so we headed back to see if it was possible to assist. First speculation was that a net had pinned the rudder, but closer investigation (after Andrew swam to check, tethered to the boat, in 2 meter seas) told otherwise. Real cause: a through bolt securing the rudder post to the quadrant had sheared off. There was no spare for the 12mm diameter, 20cm long bit of steel.

sailboat under bare poles

Utopia drifts under bare poles

Adrift in the Caribbean: Andrew is swimming just behind Utopia II

Adrift in the Caribbean: Andrew is swimming just behind Utopia II

Jamie and Andrew set to rummaging through our caches of various spares on board. We had clevis pins in the right diameter, but they were too short. A steel rod, salvaged from a wreck on Chagos, wasn’t wide enough: only 10mm in diameter. This still proved to be the best alternative to drifting through the Caribbean. Jamie cut it to length with a hacksaw and Andrew swam over to retrieve it, bundled in a net bag with a handle for easier carrying. Meanwhile, they wallowed in the swells while we stayed close by.

Rigging the repair while crammed in a lazarette in a rolly boat was a job, but three hours losing steerage both boats were underway again. It’s a sober reminder for the importance of self sufficiency and friends in contact. There is no Sea Tow to call out here!

Happily the passage was otherwise uneventful. We averaged over 7 knots for the passage, including those three hours of negative VMG while solving Utopia II’s quadrant woes.

Steady trades averaging around 18 knots picked up the last day, with a current push putting our average over 9 knots.

Despite seas growing 2 to 3 meters, the ride was comfortable. Dead downwind can be a rolly point of sail but with the breeze 15 to 20 degrees off, the motion was ameliorated. The angle pushes the limits of wing/wing, but the jib (and not the main) was the side at risk of backing; Jamie adjusted twist to make backing was unlikely, and push us swiftly west. Conditions for good boat speed allowed the autopilot to steer instead of letting Totem get pushed around by seas. Swaths of sargasso weed floated by as our pair of boats flew towards Bonaire.


Progress the last day beyond our expectations required slowing down to avoid arriving in the dark. If the mountains of salt from the works at the south end of Bonaire didn’t announce our arrival in this new island, the welcoming flocks of flamingos did– winging right in front of Totem, their long necks making an impossible profile.


We couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome to Bonaire when arrival included having two moorings handed to us by the crew of Rhapsody. Boats here don’t anchor, they’re required to use moorings or take a marina slip; it’s a move to protect the coral, which is truly spectacular. Bonaire’s reputation as a dive destination is something we can’t wait to explore.


We’re committed to spending part of every day here underwater. This will not be difficult! A garden of corals and fish beckon freediving off the back of Totem.

Boat kids from Utopia II and Totem

Boat kids from Utopia II and Totem

An array of corals and a zillion little fish

An array of corals and a zillion little fish

Blue lines show our track through the Caribbean, from arrival to Barbados last year; the orange dotted line is the anticipated path west. Curacao, Colombia, then along the San Blas coastline in Panama in January… aiming for a canal transit in early 2018.

Caribbean track

And meanwhile, more memories to make.

Totem family crew silliness

Totem family crew silliness

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