Position: 37° 35′ 49”N 0° 58′ 48”W

December 31st, 2017 we were holed up in Charleston, South Carolina, victims of the Polar Vortex, the Arctic cold blast that brought weather “extremes off the scale” to most of the east coast. We thought if we made it far enough south, we’d miss the worse of it. Instead we made it just in time for the record-breaking snow, ice and cold. Aleta was enveloped by thick ice with several inches of snow on top.

Charleston Harbor Marina was a ghost town. It was slow and perilous navigating the long docks to the toilets and showers, when those were still functioning. Frozen pipes soon shut everything down. We burrowed under every sleeping bag, our blessed little heater working hard to keep us and our systems thawed out. The sounds of a huge party on the USS Yorktown (permanently anchored there) reminded us to celebrate. We bundled up before going topside to watch the fireworks illuminating the harbor. We lasted about a minute before rushing back to our heater, to huddle and dream of warm tropical waters.

Dreams fulfilled, a year later we were anchored in the north end of Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands. Our celebration began with a beach party and pirate show (with requisite rum), followed by food, more drinks, games, and poetry recitals. At midnight we made somewhat lame attempts at blowing a conch shell to usher in 2019. Instead of seeing distant fireworks, in the islands you hear the sounds of the conch horns blowing near and far. Her partner Bill already down for the night, Rebecca, our hostess, was determined to keep the party going and would have none of us leaving. Fueled by Robert Burns and popcorn we managed to rally until around 2:00 am, when we stumbled into our dinghy for the short ride to Aleta. At some point in the evening, I had, uncharacteristically, made a resolution: to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

Twelve months and 7,000+ miles later it’s sunny and relatively warm (mid-60s F) here in Cartagena, Spain. Locals, used to searing heat the rest of the year, are dressed like they’re expecting a white Christmas. After seven months in the Caribbean I now need extra layers of down clothing and so fit right in. Despite the non-stop sun and being surrounded by palm trees, the city embodies the festivities of the holidays. A busy schedule of celebratory events and entertainment fills the calendar from mid-December through January 6th.

January 6th is Epiphany, or the Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day). In case you’d forgotten, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem and their adoration of Christ. In Spain and Latin America it is as important as Christmas. More so if you’re a kid. Children might receive a small gift on December 25th, but the big day for gifts is Three Kings Day. Leading up to it kids write letters to the Three Kings asking them for presents. The Magi beat out Santa by a long shot in this part of the world.

Around 11AM on the eve of Epiphany, crowds of families, with children dressed in their Sunday best and clutching balloons, thronged the harbour front. In other cities the kings arrive by camel, but this is a port city and the kings arrived by tourist boat. (Besides, I know from personal experience boats are much safer than camels.) The kings, Melchoir (Arabia), Caspar (the Orient), and Balthazar (Africa) are typically represented by members of the local city council. Often the kings are played by an all white cast, with Balthazar in black face. I’m not sure what the legions of socially/politically correct in America and elsewhere would make of this. Most Spaniards believe it is simply tradition, not racism. In Cartagena the kings were played by two white guys and a black guy, although Balthazar’s flunkies were mostly white folks in black face. At least some progress is being made.

The kings and their entourage disembarked and slowly made their way through the crowds to a stage in the main plaza. From their thrones they held audience and accepted letters from the children. Following the late afternoon siesta, the majority of the city lined the downtown streets for the grand finale, the Cabalgata de Reyes Magos (Cavalcade of the Magi). The kings and Disney themed floats rode through the streets throwing thousands of soft toys and 6,000 kilos(!) of sweets to the crowds. It is a bit like Mardi Gras for kids. To better catch the loot, adults and children turn umbrellas upside down as the kings approach.

Later that night, children all over Spain polished their shoes in anticipation of the arrival of the kings. Tucked inside the shoes are notes explaining what they would like and why they feel they deserved it. The kids also leave a plate of grass for the camels. Judging from the smiles and mini motorcycles along the promenade in the morning, the shoes had been well prepared.

Feliz Año Nuevo!



  1. Now you are living life as I knew it 1966-69 when my family and I lived in Rota, Spain. My dad was stationed at the Navy base there as a helicopter pilot and we traveled extensively every weekend (so it seemed) to the lovely country, north and south. Three Kings Day, Semana Santa, ferias….really takes me back reading your blogs.
    You are living my best life!

    Chris Brown Caughran

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