FAQ - Do you worry about tropical diseases?

In light of the current Zika pandemic scare, we've been asked frequently about whether we worry about catching exotic diseases that are more prevalent in tropical areas and third world countries and the answer is yes and no. Yes, it's a concern, but we take all reasonable precautions. And, no, we don't worry so much that it prevents us from sailing in the tropics or to third world countries. When we were at Pitcairn Island in 2007, the bird flu was the big scare. The Pitcairners held an island meeting (all 46 of them) and decided to “close the island” until it was prudent to allow visitors again. We were already there and had previously been at sea for more than 14 days when we arrived, so they figured we were safe enough. They did, however, have the island health officer give us a once-over.

We were in South Africa and Namibia when the Ebola virus hysteria was at its peak. We were more concerned that we wouldn't be able to fly out of Africa to the USA for the holidays than we were about actually catching the disease. As it turned out, we had our temperatures taken while waiting in the ticket line at the airport terminal. If there was no temperature, we were allowed to board. We had no problems.

And, now, of course, it's the Zika virus that's the concern. The big difference with the Zika virus is that it's transmitted not by birds or other mammals, but by mosquitoes, much like yellow fever, malaria, dengue or the West Nile viruses. One major difference, however, is that the carrier culprit (female Aedes aegypti) is a daytime-active mosquito. In case you didn't know, the Zika virus was first identified back in 1947 in the Zika Forest of Uganda, hence its name.


I found a map which shows the current probability of Zika distribution and occurrence worldwide, and obviously the more tropical areas are the most likely.

probability of zika occurance

As of this month, there have been 16 confirmed cases of the Zika virus in Trinidad. The Minister of Health, Terrence Deyalsingh, has cautioned the population not to panic. Regarding concerns that Zika could be a life threatening public health issue, he said “what you do not want from Zika is panic. Please keep it in perspective. Please let us keep our heads on to eliminate this”. He said that the virus needs to be attacked on the ground level, with a public education and clean up campaign. He said “if you have 100 people in a room, eighty per cent will not show symptoms”. Deyalsingh said: “I am appeal to everyone. Do not create unnecessary panic. The comment of Zika take you, you going to die, is absolutely not true”.

I wasn't sure I'd trust the Trinidadian Minister of Health's comments, but the CDC had the same type of information. “People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected.” Obviously though, the concern of pregnant women for birth defects in unborn children and the possible tie of Zika with Guillain-Barré Syndrome is very real.

So what precautions do we take in general? We have had yellow fever shots in the past and had a booster before we left South Africa for the Guianas. The most prudent precaution, other than not visiting the areas at all, is to cover up and use insect repellent religiously, which we try to do. In the past, we were especially careful about the dawn and dusk hours when mosquitoes are most active, but with the Zika, it's an issue all day long. Fortunately, mosquitoes are less of a problem along the coast and we've not been bothered by them. We did get bites while touring the Caroni Swamp despite the insect repellent we applied. So far, no problems. Considering there are only 16 identified cases in Trinidad, we think the chances of contracting Zika are pretty remote.

That said, we're thinking of stopping in Puerto Rico on our way north which already has 475 reported cases of Zika, most acquired locally, i.e. bitten by an infected mosquito versus travel-related or sexually transmitted. We'll take extra precautions when we stop there, e.g. mosquito netting, care with insect repellent, covering up during the day, etc. Being aware and prepared is part of the battle.

zika in the us

FAQ - Do you have boat insurance?

Well, it's boat insurance renewal time again … a depressing, expensive time of year and one which really impacts the budget. Comparative to house insurance or car insurance, boat insurance is over the top … thousands instead of hundreds of dollars. David's written about having boat insurance in the past and I thought I'd reiterate … mostly because misery loves company. big boats

If you have a mortgage on your boat, just like a house, you must have insurance. We never had a mortgage on Nine of Cups, but the investment was substantial enough (like a house without a mortgage), that we felt insuring her was important. After a couple of years in the Carib, when it was time to renew, the insurance company told us we could not go to Colombia. We took exception to their exception and canceled the insurance and muddled around until 2009 uninsured and without consequence.

When we arrived in New Zealand, we were required to have insurance to check into any marina, be on one of their moorings or be hauled out in the boatyard. Only third party liability was required and it was relatively inexpensive ($300-400). We bought it, so we could haul out. We sailed to New Zealand's South Island that year and while we were in Picton, cruising friends who were on a land holiday, stopped by to say hello. We talked about boat insurance at length. They were insured, but it was such a huge chunk of their budget, they wondered if it was worthwhile and they were thinking about not renewing. Fast forward one month later … they hit a reef near Whangaroa and their boat went down in a matter of minutes. The insurance paid up and they bought another boat. When news of our friends' loss reached us, it gave us food for thought and lots to ponder.

We investigated several insurance companies and finally found one through a local New Zealand agent that was underwritten by Lloyds of London and that we think provides us with the best coverage without breaking the bank. We now renew our insurance annually as painful as it might be. Have we ever had a claim? No … and really that would be the ultimate test of how good the insurance policy really is.

I will tell you that reading the fine print of our policy is a lesson in patience and, at times, incredulity. For instance, we are NOT covered for cyber attacks, civil war, insurrection or rebellion (or mutiny of the crew). We are not covered for radioactive contamination nor chemical, bio-chemical, biological nor electromagnetic weapon attacks including the explosion and subsequent consequences of a nuclear reactor. Oh, the list of exclusions is very, very long, but of course, we're hoping we never have to worry about them.

One thing to consider with the cost of the insurance is that some agents charge credit card fees; there are fees for foreign-currency exchange if that applies and if not, fees from your bank for a wire transfer.

We know many, many cruisers who do not opt to insure and just as many who do. It really depends on your peace of mind, what risks you're willing to tolerate and how much you have invested in your boat. Again, some marinas (especially New Zealand and Australia) require proof of insurance. Australia, by the way, requires AUD$10 million liability insurance, but our $5 mil policy from New Zealand sufficed when we discussed it with them and they made an exception.

Our liability insurance was reduced to US$1 million this year because we're returning to the USA … not sure why, but it did. Americans are a litigious lot, perhaps that's the reason. We are required to be either south of 12.07N (e.g. Trinidad) or north of Cape Hatteras between 1 June and 30 November or losses from a named or numbered windstorm (i.e. hurricanes or tropical depressions) are excluded. We're also not insured if we opt to go to Venezuela, Haiti or Cuba.

We'll be lucky if we get all of our work done on Cups and get out of the marina by June, so this time we're okay with the restrictions. Now if we can just keep the crew from mutinying ...

FAQ - Do you carry guns aboard?

no guns If the #1 most frequently asked question relates to storms we've encountered, the #2 question is “Do you carry guns aboard?” And the response is “No”. Our answer is usually met with raised eyebrows and a bit of disbelief. “Well, you're Americans. We thought for sure you'd have guns!”

The question of guns aboard is a topic of discussion between fellow cruisers, too. After discussing weather, destinations and boat problems, firearms aboard usually creeps into the conversation. Some folks think it's necessary; others disagree. Most cruiser we know, American and otherwise, do not carry guns aboard. We have several reasons for not carrying firearms.

First of all, unless the pirates are small time amateurs, they'd probably have us outgunned. If they threaten with guns and hold us at gunpoint, we might have a chance of getting out alive unless we draw guns, too. If we're outnumbered and outgunned from the start, our chances diminish significantly. We'll either have our own weapons used against us or be shot for resisting. If the pirates are small time operators, they've probably got knives and we'll take our chances with the machetes we have aboard.

There are also practical reasons for not carrying guns aboard. Most countries do not allow firearms to be brought into their country. One of the requirements of entry is to declare all guns aboard. Firearms are usually confiscated and kept by the authorities until the boat departs. If the boat moves from port to port as we'd usually do while cruising, the guns are left at the first entry port. It is the owner's responsibility to pay for transport of the guns by proper authorities from one port to another OR the boat must return to the original entry port. Easy, if it's a small country, but a bit more difficult in Australia or South Africa. By the way, most yachts are robbed or boarded while in marinas or at anchor. Since most countries confiscate firearms, the guns would not be available when you needed them.

All that said, we do carry a flare gun aboard. Most countries will allow a flare gun if the boat is foreign-registered and it is allowed in their home country. We think there would be some slim possibility of using a flare gun against an attacker. Some countries do not even allow flare guns aboard and they, too, must be declared and will be held until departure.

There is an exception to our no-gun philosophy and that would be any trip to the high northern latitudes where wildlife (and I'm talking polar bears) might be an issue. Most cruisers we know that have ventured to the Arctic have carried shotguns aboard, primarily to deter big, dangerous critters from boarding uninvited.

So far, so good. We've never needed a gun for protection in our 16 years aboard and hopefully, never will.