December 30, 2012

Helping out in the Hermit Islands: it takes a (global) village

Even without the incredible experience of swimming with whales, the Hermit Islands are indelibly impressed in our memory bank. We had a lot of fun in Bob’s company. His English is very good, and he’s happy to spend time talking- so we are able to learn a lot about the islands and the people who live there.

Computer lessons
Group computer lessons at Bob’s house

One of the first things Bob mentioned to us is that visitors from a small cruise ships that called into the Hermits earlier in 2012 gave them a laptop computer. He was away at the time, and his wife Evelyn kept it safely stashed for his return, but nobody knew how to use it. Could we help? Of course! It’s so nice to be asked for assistance that we can readily provide. Jamie spends a few days installing programs like Microsoft Office, Acrobat Reader, freeware photo editors, OpenCPN (the open source tool we use for chartplotting) and more. Then, it’s a few long sessions of Computing 101 (and 102, and 103)– first with Bob, then with other members of his family.

We run into a few hiccups getting the machine set up. First, we can’t get OpenCPN to install correctly. The route planning aspect of this tool is going to be very useful to the islanders, who routinely make extended journeys in open boats: months being away of fishing to earn kina, or multi-day trips to the provincial capital for anything they can’t grow, build, or trade for in their remote location. The loss of life at sea is a sad reality. They are gradually getting tools such as handheld GPS units and this is one more tool to help.

The problem is, despite having what we’re sure are all the right components, Jamie can’t get it to work. There’s no internet access, only text-based email through our radio. It feels frustrating, the end of a string of activities in setting up the computer that remind us how many companies presume always-on internet. Forget always-on. We don’t have anything!

Jamie thinks to get in touch with a cruising-savvy friend stateside, and ask him to tap into resources we can’t access. Tim immediately jumps in. He’s dialed into a number of cruising forums and message boards, so able to get the questions out to a relevant and interested group, and then digest and funnel information back to us. Jamie and Tim go back and forth over a few days with troubleshooting: we can usually only connect in the early morning, and then gain in the evening, so we can’t just “check email” anytime for a rapid dialogue on progress. But with Tim’s help from across the ocean, bringing forward into the ideas of other sailors and even getting in touch with the developers, the problem is successfully resolved. Hermit Island seafarers now have access to great routing and planning tool, and we have a great experience of the broad net of mutual aid.

Other problems crop up related to the lack of internet access. Most software manufacturers presume always-on internet, or at least on demand access. That’s not possible here, of course.  But this means we’re struggling to get a basic document and spreadsheet capabilities. These are both key, because Jamie has been working with Bob on putting information together to help islanders interact with visiting boats (to share their amenities and sights, and also ensure visitors know their guidelines) and a spreadsheet to help with community finances. There’s a copy of Office installed, but we don’t have the license key. We actually have an older, never used copy of Office on Totem- with the key- but internet access is required to activate the program. Otherwise, it will lock up after a limited number of times it’s opened.  And of course, we can’t just go download freeware.  It’s frustrating and gives a sense for some of the hurdles that exist for the people who don’t have what we consider basic digital utilities in the first world.

The arrival of our friends on sv Sea Glass is timely. They’ve got a sat phone, something that hasn’t fit into the budget on Totem. We outline the problem with Jon, and he’s happy to give sat phone data to enable the connection and get the license key registered. A short time later- success! The laptop for the Hermits is ready to go.

This is just one little peek into how disconnected life in the islands can be. Life looks idyllic, tropical-island-paradise on the surface. But people want to participate in the modern world, to have access to information and choices for their lives, and it’s not easy.

December 27, 2012

Arriving in the Hermit Islands: typical of our PNG experience

Our arrival at the Hermit Islands was hardly auspicious. After two nights at sea with all the squall dodging fun the convergence zone has to offer, our morning arrival is darkened by thundercloud formations on several sides.

Luf island
Looking down at the main village: Luf Island, in better weather

The Hermits are a group of volcanic islands, inside a lagoon roughly 10 miles across and surrounded by a barrier reef: much like the Bora Bora and other Leeward / Society Islands of French Polynesia. We hope to enter on the northeast side, but it’s a narrow entry and we don’t have good enough light to discern the reef from the passage. So we continue to the west side, where the entrance yawns to nearly a mile wide. Even with the latest squall dumping rain in near zero visibility, we can see well enough to make through that large opening. There’s none of the crazy current or wave action we found in Pacific lagoons so it’s an easier call to make in these conditions.

The Navionics charts we’re using turn out to be pretty accurate, but we don’t know that yet, so although Totem is safely inside the lagoon (and enjoying a much more comfortable sea state) we make slow work of picking our way through islands and reefs to the anchorage off the main village. Adding a minor bit of drama, both of the meat lines behind Totem pick up beautiful fish: a bigeye trevally, and a nice Spanish mackerel. So with one eye on the reefs, another on the squalls, and then juggling landing two fish- things get a little busy for a while.

As Totem nears Luf’s main village, we circle the bay to suss out a suitable spot to anchor. It’s tricky, because depths of 135’ and above are adjacent to coral heads that nearly break the surface. Then, as so often happens in PNG, a villager paddles out and offers local knowledge to the bumbling visitors. We have a standing joke about “the welcoming committees” who greet us, but it’s a lovely gesture that has been the norm here. We’re welcomed, aided in safely anchoring, and have a chance to ask questions- so we can work out who the chief/elder is (to bring a gift and formally ask permission to be there) and any guidelines locals have for us- as well as any requests we want to make. It’s a friendly exchange.

This time, our welcoming committee turns out to be the Hermit’s elected government representative, Bob Poplis. We invite him aboard, and give him one of the fish we caught on the way in.  At times like that, it seems ironic that so many cruisers choose not to come to PNG because of safety concerns. To be sure- there are very dangerous parts of PNG- but our experience in these outer islands is typified by this kind of friendly aid. With assurance that a particular mooring is secured to a large anchor (and some chain which probably wraps around a chunk of old coral rock), we tie up and relax.

We learn that the Hermits don’t receive many visitors (the registry book ashore indicates that as 2012 draws to a close we are the 15th boat in for the year), so we represent both a curiosity and an opportunity. Bob is eager to help us learn more about their islands and is attuned to things we’ll probably be interested in: the narrow pass where giant mantas feed, anchorage views from the top of their volcanic peak, islets with seabird rookeries, and more. He shares their guidelines: that we check in with him on the things we want to do and places we want to go. We share ours, which is simply that we’re tired from the passage, and a little unwell, and would like to have a few days of quiet.

And so Bob paddles back. We put the boat away from our passage, retreat to rest and recover, and barely move for a few days of drizzle, movies, books, and sleep!

December 21, 2012

Reader questions: fair trading

When we were in Jayapura this past week, we were able to get online in a meaningful way for the first time in months. It was fun going through blog comments- some great questions that come through the here and on our Facebook page. Here's an excerpt from one:

"Being both a person who'd "give the shirt off his back"...and extremely frugal (my wife might agree with the word "cheap")...I've often struggled with the concept of trading when there is no set 'price' - or haggling for that matter. How do you come to a "price" that is "fair" so that by the time you are sailing away you haven't traded $100 worth of batteries/shirts for a bunch of bananas and coconuts? A few islands of that and our cruising kitty would quickly run dry."

How to handle trading was probably one of the top ten questions I had before we went cruising. Even having the experience of living overseas in places where prices are always negotiable, haggling isn't something that comes naturally to me- as I suspect it doesn't for a lot of Americans; it's not part of our culture. Trading as a cruiser was a mystery.

It turned out that trading was not necessary or routine in most of the places we visited on the path to Mexico and then the coconut milk run to Australia: the countries we went through had cash economies, and provide even remote islands with access to goods. The notable exception where trading opened doors was in the Tuamotues for pearls... stash some rum for that!

As soon as we started down the less traveled path through Papua New Guinea, everything changed. But the trading we did in PNG's islands was not about hard bargaining. We had things people wanted, they had things we wanted, and it was a matter of putting those things forward until an agreement is reached. There is no haggling, really: this is very low stress compared to, say, a handicraft market in South Africa.

In a typical scenario, someone would arrive at Totem with fresh fruit or vegetables, or maybe eggs, or the offer to catch lobster. I'd find out what they want- food? clothing? fishing hooks? Then, offer what feels right from our stores based on their interests. For a basket gorgeous papayas, a kilo bag of sugar? For a half dozen carefully peeled drinking coconuts, a handful of small hooks? OK. Or, not OK. If the person you're trading with wants something different, or wants more, they'll tell you. Maybe they need a new band for a spear gun, maybe they need nails. For the most part, people were very reasonable- not trying to work us over for the best possible deal, just trying to work something out.

Where trading was sometimes less enjoyable was with people who would come asking for things, over and over, and have little to offer. Well, there's no obligation to trade at all- so just say no thanks, and be done. There were a few anchorages where we were bothered by people who seemed to think that if they just kept asking, eventually we'd be worn down and submit. I'm sure that's worked before, but we try to avoid setting or reinforcing that kind of precedent.

Trading for the beautiful model of the outrigger sailing canoe was more involved than the usual boatside veggie exchange. The artist wanted kina, PNG's currency, but we didn't have any (this was weeks before we cleared into the country, and hadn't seen a paved road or stores yet...but that's another story!). So Jamie spent about two hours sitting in the cockpit one morning, offering things to the Rubin, until he'd reached a level of goods that represented an acceptable trade. Jamie would keep going through things we had available to trade, or Rubin would ask for something he wanted, and eventually a deal was struck. It was a pile of stuff, from a snorkeling mask to line and tools and more, but we didn't exceed what felt like a fair threshold for the time and effort that went into creating this beautiful model. Everybody was happy.

If benchmarks help, think about what you'd pay to buy something if you could- and what it cost you to get what you're offering. Is that pineapple, which might be $5, a fair trade for the 1 kg bag of sugar that might have cost you $1.50? Yet while you can think about it in terms of the value of the items being exchanged, but think of it this way, too: when the ONLY way for you to get a fresh pineapple, and the ONLY way for them to get a bag of sugar, is to trade- so that isn't necessarily a great benchmark, but maybe a way of estimating how close or far you are from what's reasonable. We really found people to be very fair. I remember giving a guy in Kavieng a two kg bag of rice for a couple of lobsters one day. He was thrilled and insisted it was too much, then showed up the next day to give us three huge, beautiful papayas from his garden. Wow!

Oh, there were times when we made deliberately unbalanced trades. When a child has paddled miles with a handful of tiny tomatoes, or a pretty shell, and asked for things that represent basic needs for food and clothing- I'm happy to give. We didn't need another pretty shell, and those tiny green tomatoes weren't going to be any good, but we kept a stash of baggies that could be quickly filled with a small amount of rice or sugar or whatever was requested. How can you turn down a kid in rags who wants a t-shirt, and has paddled from a neighboring island with something they hoped you would want, when they saw your boat from afar?

Ultimately, if you're going to an area where you anticipate trading, research a little to find out what people will want. We raised the waterline with the volume of stuff brought on board in anticipation of trading. Most of it wasn't costly: staple foods, boxes of fishhooks. Clothes which we mostly expected to give away, and got both by purchasing from thrift stores, taking donations at the kids' schools, and paring down our own wardrobe. These things are then sunk costs to you, and you're not going to run down your kitty trading them...or worry to much about whether the bargain your striking is a fair one. It's going to work, or it's not!

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December 19, 2012

Evening discussions at Tunung Island

We were grateful for Paul’s help finding the shipwreck in Three Island Harbour  and enjoyed his company, so invited he and his family out in the evening.

Ungalik evening
Beautiful sunsets near New Hanover Island

Paul paddled out to Totem after sunset; sitting in the evening breeze and eating dinner together, we talk about his home. He grew up on the adjacent island, attending school until he was a teenager and his father told him to fail the test to pass to the next grade. He was needed at home to help with the family’s fishing. Piloting the boat for years evolved to work at the small resort on Tunung, helping drive tourists around to dive or surf sites. It’s closed temporarily, but it’s given him a good living: the owner helps support his employees with not just cash but goods and materials they can’t easily access otherwise, such as lumber and nails for their homes.

Like a lot of people we've met in PNG, Paul is smart and frustrated. Tourism gives him the exposure to how much he’s missing, and the near impossibility for people to get ahead. He wants to save for his children’s future, but can’t use a bank – there isn't one that’s practically accessible (the only transportation, private boat, translates to a fuel cost that’s too high for a casual visit- probably a month’s earnings- and fees charged for small accounts only deplete meager savings). He sees the ripple effect of logging on adjacent New Hanover. Elders sign away rights to their people’s land for grossly undervalued payment and without understanding the consequences of clear cutting. We hear that often, the land is appropriated without consent- that the power of money shifted to the right hands overcomes obstacles, and put signatures on documents from people who may not even be alive. Workers brought in from outside the local social structure introduce alcohol and violence to communities that can’t sanction them through traditional means, and don’t have the public services to handle the fallout. Fish are getting harder to find, as massive ships take everything from the waters when they pass through, making subsistence living that much more difficult. The wealth being extracted is massive, yet he has no opportunity to participate, and none of it goes to basic public services or improvements. For all the money being earned by a precious few, there is still not a road to connect the coastline of New Hanover, the schools are under-served, there is no public transportation or regular boat services connecting communities, and meager health “clinics” sprinkled through islands are under equipped and staffed.

Paul has every right to be extremely angry. To be sure, he’s frustrated: with the foreign companies that take blindly, with the government chooses to be bought instead of supporting the people they are supposed to represent. But he’s not an angry person. He doesn't accept it, but he doesn't know what to do. How can people organize, when they don’t have communication or transportation, much less running water, electricity, or other basic public services?

Talking into the night, feeling the pain of his helplessness, we try to think about the possibilities. Why does PNG seem so far off the radar of environmental and social justice organizations, or NGOs who can support better lives? The only imported goodwill seems to be missionaries, but spiritual fulfilment doesn't feed your family or send your kids to school. There are opportunities for tourism, but the cost, corruption, and  infrastructure get in the way.

How people send messages
Schoolroom poster about modes of communication in PNG

The local ‘wantok’ system factors meaningfully here too. Wantok, a tok pisin word that comes from “one talk,” refers to the circle of a greater extended family (it can also include friends). In PNG, the wantok system obligates members of an extended family to help each other out. This is a subject for much more detailed explanation, but suffice to say here that this works well in a lot of ways- strong family ties mean that children are raised by a village, food is available for the hungry, elders are cared for by their grown children. But it’s also a limitation to progress. There is little motivation to achieve success for many when it means all their wantoks will come to them with their hands out: they cannot be refused. The wantok system also means that jobs are handed out based on relationships, and not merit. Money and opportunity go to those who have family connections.

It’s a complex problem, and one we’re not going to solve with our late night cockpit discussions. But as Paul paddles away, it’s impossible not to dwell on the big changes needed for people in PNG.

December 17, 2012

Working around New Hanover, PNG

En route to the Hermits, we spent more time than we originally planned at Ungalik. But we feel the need to keep moving west, to try and get as far as we can towards Indonesia’s Raja Ampat before the seasonal northwesterlies set in. Still, we couldn't resist the lure to linger a bit longer near New Hanover.

Visitors come to Totem in all manner of flotation devices

Tunung (erroneously labeled “Dunung” on our charts) has a large WWII ship and the wreck of a submarine to find, and a great position to jump off for the ~320 nm trip to the Hermits- so off we go.

Working between New Hanover and the fringing islands, we see one sweet spot after another. Islets that look to too perfect to be real pass in our wake: white sand, palm trees, pods of dolphins. Beautiful swells curl great stretches into sandy shores; I suspect we are passing world class, barely touched surfing spots. Not to mention, the waves look less lethal than most of the dumps into the coral reefs we've seen. But it’s not all rosy behind the lush scenery, since we've been warned about theft and danger around the logging camps along the larger island, and want to pick our anchorage with care.

With the anchor down at the Three Islands Harbour island of Tunung, we dinghy in loops around the area where we believe the wrecks to be located. If there was ever a time I really wanted a fish finder or depth sounder in our dink, this would be it! We know we’re in the right place, but the ship eludes us. It doesn't help that we've started out with poor light in the back half of the afternoon, with high tide, and poor viz in the water. Just as we've pointed back towards Totem, a dugout is launched and begins paddling towards us. We motor over for hellos and meet Paul. He knows exactly where the wreck is, and takes us to the spot.

It’s magical, and somber. A large ship lying on one side, a few meters below the surface. Knowing we're over the sunken tomb of the crew feels heavy. The sides are surprisingly clean, but the biggest coral fans I've ever seen wave gently in the current. A school of large sweetlips hide inside, in the shadows of the hull. We drift silently with the current, awed on different fronts by the beauty of the marine life the knowledge of the real people who died beneath us. Back in the dinghy, we marvel over the size of the fish. I joke with Jamie about going back to catch dinner, but it doesn't feel right.

Only a handful of families live on Tunung. Many work at the small resort on shore, but it’s closed temporarily. Most of the island's children seem to be on Totem at one point in the afternoon, and they’re the quietest bunch we've met. We invite them aboard and sit in the cockpit, drinking cold juice and snacking on watermelon together. Old enough to attend school, we know they can understand some English, but they don't speak much- mostly just reacting to questions with quiet giggles and wide eyes. The junior crew on Totem is swimming around the boat, jumping off and climbing back up again like a big floating jungle gym, but they aren't able to lure the other kids into their fun.

Going to school
Paddling to school on the mainland

School is across on the “mainland”, as they refer to the island of New Hanover (only 20 miles across, but the main island from their perspective). Children paddle their dugouts daily to attend school- older children helping to ferry the youngest. There are no helicopter parents here! I look at the stretch of water, and marvel that they even make it on a regular basis. But then I think of the kids back on Panapompom, who have a long barefoot walk over a coral path (trust me, this hurts even if you have toughened feet) and then get to cross a river with crocs so that they can have the privilege of schooling. The boy paddling ahead of us has a cracker tin which probably keeps his notebook dry, and parcel woven from coconut fronds that probably holds lunch.

How soft we are.

December 7, 2012

Zen and the art of not missing a field guide

My abundance of pumpkin and coconut got me started on that post about wanting a certain cookbook a couple of days ago, but while I'm thinking about the books that we wish we had on board, there's another that looms large. Or rather, it's not one book in particular this time, but a gap in our range.

We have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in stunning tropical places, with the kind of clear blue water promising darting colorful fish and gently waving coral fans that you just can't stay out of. Just looking at the amazing things under the surface isn't enough, though, so we have a raft of different field guides to help us understand and interpret what we can see. In Mexico, they were region-specific guides that fed our knowledge of the fish, seaweeds and invertebrates in the Sea of Cortez. Launching out into the Pacific, we bought a guide that I believe is the standard: Tropical Pacific Reef Fish Identification, by Allen/Steene. What we I didn't appreciate at the time was, well, the whole prominence of FISH in the title and the fact that it doesn't touch on any other reef life.


The thing is, fish are just one tiny part of what we see on the reef. Here in Papua New Guinea, the diversity of life on the reef is stunning, and easily surpasses what we've seen anywhere else in the south Pacific. The squid, the starfish, the corals, anemones, nudibranchs, sea cucumbers, molluscs, arthropods and more- for any information on these and anything else beyond the world of fish, apparently, you have to purchase a companion book. The same publisher offers one, of course- "Reef Creature Identification." And there's another beauty from the same authors, that covers a spectrum of reef life for the region in a single text- "The Indo Pacific Coral Reef Guide." A dive shop in Australia let me flip through their house copy, but there wasn't a new one to buy anywhere we looked in our last few weeks in Australia.

If money were no object, we'd have a sat phone on board and data to spend on ordering books to be sent by an international courier service. But even that wishful thinking is problematic, because we're just a little "out there" at the moment... DHL doesn't serve remote atolls in PNG. I'm pretty sure it doesn't even serve most of populated PNG dependably. And anyway, we're stuck for now and that's the way it is. It's just a little unfortunate.

We do have a great marine mammal guide. Sea birds of the world are covered. Shells, too, in a few different books. We even have a guide for reptiles, covering the turtles, sea snakes and fantastic lizards we see, to the saltwater crocodiles we hope we don't. But for the reefs, only fish. How did I miss this?! It is times like this- realizing we can't having a gap in our books we really want to fill but simply can't- that being remote is a little frustrating. But then again, maybe a little separation from the instant gratification of the first world isn't such a bad thing. It's another chance to pull out a favorite catchphrase: if this was easy, everybody would be doing it!

Eventually, yes, we can get a guide book to cover this gap. Maybe we'll have visitors to Totem (I'm hoping some of our family or dear friends come out to play with us in 2013!), and they can pack along goods from home. But maybe we'll be waiting until dependable international mail service. Unfortunately, that is a few thousand nautical miles and many months ahead of us. Meanwhile, we sail through the most biodiverse part of the world.

Cautionary tale I suppose. But for now we're just going to have a good time making up names for what we see, and daydreaming about the possibilities of what they eat, how they poop, and how they reproduce.

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December 6, 2012

The Boat Galley Cookbook - all I want for Christmas

It's time to make dinner, and I'm looking around at the galley and wondering for the Nth time in the last few months, what I can do with pumpkin, coconuts, and ibecca (the mucilaginous leafy green that grows on the islands here). I'm running low on inspiration and it's not an option to tap ingredients into Google for a recipe. And I'm really wishing I could have gotten The Boat Galley Cookbook before we left Australia.

Jamie and I really love to cook. And we're lucky, I guess, that we don't have picky kids. They're game to try just about anything and "I don't eat _____" just isn't a phrase that comes up on Totem. So this should be easy, right? But we do have standards, and so while they are easy to please- going on repeat from a limited range of long term stores just isn't what we do. And besides, fantastic fruit and vegetables are showing up on our boat daily whether we want them or not. It's criminal not to use them.

This all serves as a reminder to me that the tried and true cookbooks from our prior shore life don't work well once you take off cruising. OK, more accurately, they particularly don't work well when you are far from recognizable grocery stores, and at the tail end of provisions purchased a few months prior. I've got a few cookbooks on the boat right now, but they tend to assume it's no problem to have things on hand like fresh cilantro or maybe some goat cheese or god forbid a bit of prosciutto. No, no, no! I dream about these things, but I have pumpkin and coconuts.

I just need some recipes. Recipes that will help me use the funny things we find out cruising in the tropics. There is a whole lot more to do with a papaya than reflect on your Maui vacation and how good it was with a lime squeezed on top. I know this now, but that's not helping me. I need recipes don't assume I have those ingredients that were once mundane, but now exotic. Recipes that understand cruisers run short on things like eggs and dairy, and offer alternatives to compensate (pre-cruisers out there, just figure out now how to make an oil based pie crust, and thank me later).

There are plenty of reasons why a good cruising-specific cookbook is important to have on board. As a newbie cruiser, they're great for guidance on storing fresh produce (so your oranges don't make all your tomatoes turn early), how to substitute when you don't have an essential ingredient, how to provision intelligently, or how to make those things you loved at home but can't buy in a distant port (I'm calling it a tie between yogurt and English muffins). This recipe wallowing just happens to be the reason I'm feeling a cookbook gap most keenly at the moment.

I've followed The Boat Galley's website for a while- it's got a lot of helpful tips and good recipes, and the co-authors have tons of cruising experience. I know this cookbook is going to be a winner. It's just a little complicated, since we left just as it went to print in October, and haven't even had the internet access to get the Kindle copy.

So Santa, husband dear, Universe- here's the deal: Christmas and my birthday are 4 days apart, and The Boat Galley Cookbook is what I'd love to see under the Christmas tree. I mean, under the mocked-up, tree-shaped fairy lights against the bulkhead, decorated with taped tinsel and paper snowflakes.


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December 3, 2012

But where is the soy sauce?

After anticipating cruising for years, you'd think we have plenty of time to optimize space used in Totem's various lockers, shelves, and other stowage areas. We'd know exactly where to store those things which fill out the essentials of life afloat, along with plenty of the extras which make life fun.

Hah! Even after four plus years, we still have a long way to go to reach storage Nirvana. I'm skeptical of any cruiser who claims to have it nailed, although there are many who may combine an OCD tendency with fewer complications than the Totem crew (*cough* IT'S THE KIDS, REALLY *cough*) to achieve such exalted status.

The thing is, we still have too much on board.

Despite massively purging the "stuff" in our lives, we still have too much kicking around. Keeping things organized and, well, findable is a constant challenge. I was told by a long term cruiser once that the basic rule was that for every item brought on board, something had to be taken off. That sounds great, and it's a good principle, but often not really practical.

Then, there's the little matter of finding what we need, when we need it.

I have an Excel spreadsheet I use as a guideline for provisioning. Columns along the row of each staple listed identify where I've stored the many things on the list. And you know what? Some of those items actually are correctly stored in the coded location. The problem is that storage is dynamic. We'll move things as one locker gets empty to avoid things banging around, or find we need to shuffle items to accommodate something of a particular size. Somewhere along the way, the tidily noted location on the spreadsheet becomes meaningless. At the moment, I know we've got soy sauce on board somewhere. I know it in my heart, I really do! But darned if I can find it. Call it spreadsheet fail...I've looked everywhere. How does a 750ml bottle of Kikkoman get lost on a boat?

There's a lot of context needed to name essentials.

Before personal preferences throw all rules out anyway, the differences in short vs long term cruising and provisioning options in different parts of the world and priorities of the crew make a "top 10 essentials" the stuff of cute glossy magazine articles but not practical reality. What we needed when we left Bainbridge Island is different than what we needed when we left Mexico, which was different again from when we left Australia. When we cleared out of Queensland in September, we dedicated an insane amount of space to items for trading and giving away for our months in Papua New Guinea. It really was essential for the last few months, but certainly not something we had not needed to do previously.

Our priorities, and our biggest space splurge, reflect our family's specific interests and needs. Because we have three children ranging from 8 to 13 years old, that means resources that support their learning as we travel, and the things that are special or important to them.

We have a ridiculous number of books, from my childhood set of Little House in the Prairie stories to the set of encyclopedias. I think we must have a few dozen different field guides, from the coffee table variety you can get lost in learning from, to the quick references that help us make the most of identifying the plants and animals around us. The advent of ebooks, something we didn't really have available when we left, has helped us cut down a lot- although I still have a preference for flipping through the traditional printed versions of my well-thumbed guides. But all those digital books mean I have a deep stash of appealing reading available anytime (I won't pretend to have any fancypants taste, but I cannot get into the book exchange mainstays of sci fi and Patterson). I no longer need to stash the physical version to avoid getting twitchy. But still, it's hard to let go of the Patrick O'Brian set, even if we *do* have them all in ebook formats.

And then there's the space we take up with things we collect. We love beachcombing and have a large locker full of finds. Do we *need* these things? My goodness no! But we cherish them. I can look into a storage bin and picture the very beaches we found different treasures. I've got a big bag of shells waiting to be hot glued onto fairy lights...for three years and counting. Arrowheads, a dessicated swordfish spear, endless bins of shells.

Well, it is December. Maybe it's time to tackle those shell-covered lights.

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