Thursday, November 24, 2016

Panama-Mexico Wrap Up

Sorry to have taken a break from blogging and leaving you all hanging in the middle of us preparing the boat for storage at Puerto Chiapas.  Here's the wrap up of our six week Panama-to-Mexico journey.

We finished with the boat with enough time to take a short land trip back to our favorite town in Mexico, San Cristobal de Las Casas. We rented a car this time to cut down on travel time, a five-plus hour drive versus a 10-plus hour bus ride. We found a great Airbnb, a spacious apartment with a rooftop terrace right in the center of town, $100 for three nights! We enjoyed the cool weather, walking around town, eating delicious food, good wine, good coffee, local hot chocolate and wandering around the handicraft market. It was a really nice way to end our trip and I used it as an opportunity to recover some from my birthday failure earlier in the month with Renee.

Renee proved her mettle once again while we were taking a short hike along a river just outside of town. We were standing on a little platform overlooking the river above where it entered a cave, about 12 feet above the water and Renee reached for her phone to take a picture. The phone fell out of her pocket and into the river where it sunk rapidly. I figured the phone was a goner and started to console Renee, but before I got any words out, she had stripped to her underwear and was wading in the cold water trying to recover the phone. I believed her efforts to futile and was beginning to get honestly concerned about hypothermia when she ducked under the water and came up clutching the phone in its waterproof case. Amazing! 

We drove back from San Cristóbal on Thursday, November 17 to take care of a few loose ends on Intermezzo, including removing the damaged port propeller so I can repair it back home. On Friday morning, we boarded our flights back to the US, Renee heading to California and me to the DC area for the Thanksgiving holidays.

On reflection, I really enjoyed this segment of our journey. It got off to a rocky start with so many boat issues to deal with while adjusting back to life at sea, but cruising the remote islands of northern Panama was fantastic. The weather was much cooler than I expected, there were virtually no mosquitos, the scenery was amazing and I enjoyed the peaceful isolation. Once we got north of the monsoon trough, the sailing became much more enjoyable and the weather was fantastic. Renee and I both enjoyed the multiple day passages north to Mexico and we both felt a bit sorry the trip was over as we entered the channel to Puerto Chiapas as the boat  and life on the water felt like home again. Getting the boat ready for storage again was again a rocky process for me (I realize now I don't deal with land-sea transitions very well!), but our short trip to San Cristóbal smoothed things out.

I'm glad to be with friends and family for the holidays, but not sure as to whether I'm back home here or away from home on Intermezzo. I'm grateful for it all, regardless.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Intermezzo being hauled out for dry storage at Puerto Chiapas

Heading from Tapachula to the cool mountains of San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cristobal from the rooftop terrace of our Airbnb

Women from the village of Chumala in their traditional clothes

The wine bar Vino Bacca in San Cristóbal. A glass of a delicious Reserve Carmenere from Chile for $2.75! Warm, friendly, youthful energy, too!

Renee enjoying the wine bar

This place has the best hot chocolate made from local cocoa. We had cups after dinner every night. The friendly guy behind the counter remembered us from our previous visit in February.

The cave at El Arcotete, just outside of San Cristóbal.  Much cooler temperature than at the boat!

The platform from which Renee dropped her phone and the river from which she subsequently recovered it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Puerto Chiapas: Preparing the Boat, Again

We arrived at Puerto Chiapas early Wednesday morning. It was an enjoyable passage and I was a bit sorry that it was over and that sailing is now over for a couple of months.

We had nothing but satellite communication for the election on Tuesday. All our news came in via short texts. We were shocked by the outcome. I am going to keep this blog completely apolitical, other than to say that I'm not sure I would be unhappy staying on this side of Trump's wall for the next four years. I appreciate how affordable everything is here after the peso's post-election plunge in value, but take no joy from the reason why.

We are busy preparing the boat to haul it out and store it on land until we resume sailing in February. The haul out is scheduled for Monday.  Today we washed the exterior of the boat, prepared the watermaker for storage, cleaned and covered the dinghy and made good progress on cleaning and "pickling" the interior of the port hull by wiping it down with vinegar to prevent mold and mildew. The pickling worked pretty well for four months in super-moist, rainy season Costa Rica, so I'm hoping that it will work really well for two months in less-moist, dry season Mexico.

Mexico seems so big, modern and affluent after spending so much time in Central America.

I'm sorting through pictures and will post soon.

Monday, November 7, 2016

In Route to Puerto Chiapas:: Delay, Squall, and a Sea Turtle Rescue

Officials were scheduled to arrive yesterday at Puesta del Sol at 8 a.m.. Just after eight, the marina manager let me know that they hadn't left their respective headquarters in Corinto and would arrive around 10. Then it would be noon. Shortly after noon, the marina manager looked at me apologetically and said it lo is like they might not make it today and you won't be able to leave until tomorrow. And then, just before three o'clock they showed up!

We cleared out of Nicaragua, topped up the fuel tanks from the pump at the fuel dock (no jugs, grunting, or moaning) and were out on the ocean at 4:30. Considerably later than planned and the good part of a day wasted sitting waiting on the boat, but a walk in the park compared to Costa Rica.

The sea was smooth, the sky sunny and clear, with a gentle wind that didn't help us or hurt us. We were treated to a beautiful sunset and enjoyed finishing the leftover gourmet Thai curry on the lanai. (Intermezzo's cockpit is more like a porch than a place from which one operates a boat.)

Around 10:30 that night Renee was on watch with me sound asleep below when she noticed big thunderclouds in the night sky and lots of rain showing up on radar. When she went below to shut a couple of portlights the wind was blowing seven knots. Several seconds later when she came back on deck, it was howling at 35 knots. Our first significant squall of the trip.

She called for me to come up on deck and I promptly arrived in my only underwear to assess the situation. It was windy, there were some decent wind waves, it was raining and it was chilly outside wearing only underwear, so I didn't stay long. The boat was managing well and while Renee was a bit apprehensive, she had matters well in hand so I asked her if it was okay for me to go back to bed. I would have stayed up but I thought it better to let Renee figure out that she was doing fine on her own. I got up about a half hour later to check on her and she was ar ease and confident, even as the wind continued to howl and the boat tossed around by the short but violent sea. I went back to sleep; I can sleep through just about anything save for the boat sinking or exploding or the jib sheets rattling in the way I just cannot stand.

The squall lasted about an hour and then was over almost as quickly as it started and the rest of the night was uneventful.

Today was a glorious day. Sunny, a light blue clear sky and a calm deep blue sea. The gentle wind was from the SSW a good part of the day allowing us to motorsail and run the engine slow and quietly. Renee caught four nice skipjack tuna that we turned loose because we don't really like the strong flavor and tough texture of this member of he tuna species. Our watches were pleasant and we got some naps, reading and writing in while off watch.

Just after lunch, Renee spotted a sea turtle tangled up in fishing gear and a plastic bottle float. She said, "Let's save it!" and we sprung into action. we furled the sail, I turned the boat around and Renee got her fishing lines in. I eased the boat up near to the turtle and Renee hauled in hundreds of feet of polypropylene cord to which monofilament lines with hooks were attached at intervals, bringing the turtle and the bottle float closer to the boat. The polypropylene cord was wrapped around one of the turtles fins, attaching it to the giant mess of fishing tackle now lying on Intermezzo's deck. The turtle was obviously in distress and the cord had cut into the flesh of its fin, but it wasn't too bad. Renee talked to the turtle to keep it calm, although I question if a turtle off the coast of El Salvador understands English. I would have spoken to it in Spanish. But that is my only critique. Otherwise Renee worked quickly, gently and efficiently, hooking the cord with t
he gaff (tip protector on) to lift it clear of the turtle's fin and then cutting it with a stout pair of scissors, her bare hand only inches from the turtle's sharp beak. (I added that last bit for dramatic effect. The turtle had been calmed by Renee's soothing voice, even though it was in the wrong language.) The turtle swam away, free and with only a minor wound. It was a very rewarding diversion on a beautiful day at sea We saved a rare creature's life and done a tiny bit of good for the planet, though I use "we" generously. It was Renee who spotted it, called us to action and took charge of the rescue. I mostly watched, took a few pictures and muttered a few comments about speaking the correct language to the animal. Renee earned the good turtle karma today.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Puesta del Sol: Good Times, Only One Leg Left To Go

Our passage to Puesta del Sol turned out great. We sailed nine hours of the 36 hour journey, a ratio we haven't achieved for...well I don't remember when! When the wind wasn't propelling us, it wasn't hurting us any. There was a gentle swell but otherwise the seas were calm. The weather pleasant night and day, with a beautiful sunset, a night sky of bright stars and a soft pastel sunrise with a volcano as a backdrop. The trip reminded me of why I love sailing so much.

We celebrated Renee's birthday en route. A pretty dismal performance on my part, as I had made no preparations, either before leaving for the voyage or while on shore at Playa de Cocos. The best I could do was cook her a nice dinner, toast her with a beer, pretend there was a candle on a coconut macaroon and sing her Happy Birthday in my best voice. I put everything I had into the singing. I wish I had a better voice. She was generous in her appreciation, but I feel guilty about coming up so short for the occasion.

Originally we had only planned to stop overnight in Puesta del Sol to rest and refuel. As we approached the mouth of the estuary, I remembered how nice a place it is. When I was here in April, I was by myself, feeling pretty lonely and while I enjoyed the large, pretty estuary and deserted ocean beach, my appreciation was subdued by loneliness. Now I had somebody to show around and it seemed like a good idea to take an extra day to do so. So we're staying two days and will depart for Mexico on Sunday afternoon.

Yesterday (Friday) after we arrived, officially checked in to Nicaragua (so, so, so much easier than Costa Rica) and got the boat squared away, I hung out at the pool buying Mexican liability insurance online over a very slow internet connection. It took a couple of hours but I managed to keep my cool. Partly by jumping into the pool. Renee decided to use the marina/hotel's washing machines to do laundry; why, I"m not sure, but whatever floats your boat. It turns out the washing machines worked about as well as the Internet connection, so we both burned up most of the afternoon. We took a swim at the end of the day and then had a satisfactory dinner at the hotel restaurant. We had a nice relaxing time but it is always a little disappointing to me when the food you get at a restaurant isn't anywhere near as good as you can cook yourself. Well, at least I didn't have to swelter at the stove and there we no dishes to do.

Today we spent most of the day walking along the mostly deserted beach, enjoying the opportunity to stretch our legs after so many days on the boat. We had a few miles of beach all to ourselves, save for a couple of surfers, a small group of guys playing soccer and half a dozen tourists who mysteriously appeared for a short while. The far end of the beach is an expanse of smooth rocks that form a network of tide pools. Renee hopped around the rocks collecting shells while I did yoga on a flat spot of dense sand. It was a good day.

Tonight, I cooked a nice Thai curry, using a fantastic curry past direct from Thailand and Red Boat fish sauce (the best!). Way, way, way better than the restaurant.

Tomorrow we start the last leg of this segment of our journey north. I realized a few days ago that I had reconnected with the boat, sailing and life afloat, everything feeling comfortable and natural again after a somewhat rocky start. I'm looking forward to getting back to the U.S. to visit loved ones and for the holidays, but know I'm going to miss Intermezzo and my seaborne life, too.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Playa de Cocos to Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua: What a Difference a Trough Makes

After taking a little time to recover from our Costa Rica Nightmare, we raised anchor in Playa de Cocos at 7 p.m. yesterday evening to resume our passage northward, the destination of this leg being Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua. If you have been following this blog since Spring, you might recall this is where I left Intermezzo to do a three week land tour of Nicaragua in April and where my daughter joined me at the beginning of May to sail to Costa Rica.

It's now Thursday morning (Renee's birthday!) We are about half way to Puesta del Sol. The passage has been calm and peaceful. We enjoyed two hours of quiet sailing under the Code 0, but the rest of the time it has been motoring with the engine chugging along at relatively low rpms.

As with a lot of things related to sailing in new places, I am learning about tropical weather patterns as I go. I have been reading weather synopses for this region, but it has been a bit of a learning curve to understand how the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and the Monsoon Trough relate to our local weather conditions and to draw a mental picture of where these two phenomena are located relative to our position based on a few latitude/longitude coordinates provided in the offshore weather report. But I finally think I figured it out.

The ITCZ is where winds from the equator and the subtropical high pressure to the north converge. This convergence results in the doldrums, where there is little or no wind and convection in this zone is one of the reasons for the thunderstorms we have been experiencing. The Monsoon Trough is associated with the ITCZ and is a line (usually not a straight one) of low pressure.

The Monsoon Trough is what has been affecting us the most. It is currently located between 8 and 10 degrees north latitudes. The difference and gradient between the high pressure areas to the north and south of the trough determine the strength of the winds. The pressure gradient towards the equator has been steeper than the pressure gradient to the north. Thus, when were south of the trough in Panama, we experienced the strong southwest-west winds that resulted in the spirit-sucking bash, bash, bashing. Now that we are north of 10 degrees latitude, in a much more gentle pressure gradient, the winds are much lighter resulting in calmer seas. If I had figured this out sooner, I would have known there was a light at the end of the tunnel while we were bashing our way northward.

From here to Mexico, the weather we need to watch carefully are the Papagayo winds. These winds originate in the Gulf of Mexico, crossing a narrow isthmus in Costa Rica-Nicaragua and blowing down the mountains into the sea from the east. These winds can be very strong, typically in the winter months. For us, it looks like we will get some good Papagayo winds this weekend,19-25 knots from the East-Northeast, which should make for a great beam reach sailing to Puerto Chiapas. That would be a great way to wind up the last leg of our journey.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Playa de Cocos: My Costa Rica Nightmare

Conditions on our passage from Golfito to Bahia Culebra continued to improve. They had started off miserable when we left on Sunday morning. By Sunday evening, they became tolerable. Overnight, the seas calmed and the wind shifted south, enough so that we got a nice boost from the jib and could throttle back the engine to reducing fuel consumption and noise, yet still make better than 5 knots speed. Monday evening, they became enjoyable, the wind now coming out of the southeast with a gentle southwest swell. For an hour, we actually turned off the engines and sailed downwind under the Code 0, which brought a smile to my face. The wind eventually died down and we had to resume motoring, but we had a favorable current and made 5 knots with one engine rumbling gently at 2,000 rpm. What a relief.

On Tuesday morning, we entered Bahia Culebra and headed to Marina Papagayo to refuel. It was a beautiful morning, Renee and I were in good spirits. Things were looking up. And then our Costa Rica Nightmare began.

Our intent was to just stop at the marina to refuel and then anchor overnight to get some rest, just like we did in Golfito on the way to and from Panama. Marina Papagayo is a pretty swanky place, so I hailed them on the radio to let them know I was arriving, wanted to buy fuel, and let them direct me to the appropriate fuel dock. Instead of being welcomed and accommodated, they asked me, "Have you cleared into Costa Rica yet?" I told them, no, I haven't because we are a yacht in transit and were stopping only to refuel, not stay in Costa Rica or go ashore. They told me that they could not provide any fuel unless I could provide documents proving that I had officially cleared into Costa Rica. I told them this was a surprise and a problem for us and asked them if they could make an exception. They told me no, in no uncertain terms, and that if I wanted to buy fuel I had turn around and go back 5 miles to Playa de Coco and clear in with the Port Captain.

I duly turned the boat around and headed to Playa de Coco, resigned to spending the day dealing with officials. There was really no legitimate option, as we didn't have enough fuel to safely navigate to our next refueling/rest stop in Nicaragua. I was a little bit worried because, technically, Intermezzo needed to be out of Costa Rica for 90 days before the boat was allowed to re-enter the country and it had only been 32 days since we cleared out of Puntarenas. I wasn't overly concerned because all the documentation I had received was all handwritten and the whole clearing in/clearing out process seemed very antiquated and didn't seem to involve computers, electronic records or databases with the exception of immigration, who runs a quick electronic check of your passport to see if you are a fugitive, terrorist or other "person of interest".

After anchoring the boat off Playa de Coco, we landed the dinghy on the beach during low tide, which meant we had to haul it 30 yards up the beach for when the tide came in. The dinghy weighs close to 300 pounds and we haven't put wheels on it (yet), so it requires the two of us dragging it through the sand with all our might, three feet at a time. A good analogy for our 30 yard struggle is like being offensive linemen in a football game blocking for three first downs of grunting short yardage running plays. Thankfully, Renee and I have the strength and stamina (and good looks!) of people 20 years younger and got our dinghy to the goal posts working hard, but without killing ourselves.

We cleaned ourselves up and proceeded to the Port Captain's office. I explained our circumstances to her (the first female Port Captain in Cost Rica) and asked, "Surely a yacht doesn't have to go through the entire clearing in process just to buy 50 gallons of diesel?" She answered, "Surely, it does." Bummer. Hannah and I had cleared Intermezzo into Costa Rica at Playa de Coco back in May, so I knew the process. It takes most of day, primarily because it requires a trip to the airport and back to clear customs which takes about two hours. Renee and I resigned ourselves to spending the day doing this and then refueling in the morning, comforted somewhat by the availability of good restaurants and a high quality grocery store on shore for us to visit.

Our first stop after the Port Captain was the Immigration office, a quarter mile walk up the main street. Getting our passports stamped and the other required documents went pretty smoothly, although there was a nerve wracking ten minutes spent dealing with the fact that one document from Panama said there was no crew, just a captain on Intermezzo and another listed Renee as crew. Hard to believe we might not have been allowed to enter Costa Rica due to such a technicality, but it took some serious negotiating in Spanish to convince the official that her nation's security would not be compromised by Renee stepping foot ashore. As to me, well, I was unambiguously listed on both Panamanian forms so she could confidently stamp my passport and then I could wreak whatever havoc I wanted to.

After Immigration, it was back to the Port Captain's office, stopping briefly for smoothies and wifi on the walk back. She prepared some more papers and then it was off to the airport to get clearance from Customs. The normal taxi fare for the 15 minute trip to the airport is $40, but I knew from my previous visit that this was the "gringo fare". It took us a little while, but Renee found a taxi that would take us for $20. We clambered into the cab and sped off.

Once at the airport, you need to know that to see Customs, you need to talk to a policeman at the exit for arriving passengers. I not only knew this, but I even knew the policeman, having chatted with him while I waited for almost an hour for Customs on my previous visit. This time, the Customs official, a very serious young woman, came out after only a 15 minute wait and I filled out the required forms and gave her all the required documents, upon which she returned to her official lair behind the doors. About 20 minutes later she returned looking even more serious with what to me was a distasteful expression on her face. Not good.

Apparently Costa Rica's Custom agency does have a database for visiting yachts and Intermezzo was in it, clearly recorded as having only been out of Costa Rica for 32 days, not the required 90. Ms. Uptight Customs Official told me that she could not clear the boat into Costa Rica. I explained to her that I wasn't trying to clear the boat into Costa Rica, I just needed to buy fuel so I could safely navigate out of the country. I only needed Customs clearance for a few hours, surely she could give me a document to allow that? She responded, "Surely, I cannot."

I explained to her the impossibility of the situation. I couldn't leave Costa Rica without fuel to get me to my next port. But I couldn't buy fuel until I officially entered Costa Rica, which she wouldn't allow. I explained that it is common for yachts in transit to stop to buy fuel without fully clearing in to a country, just like passengers in an airport make connecting flights without going through immigration or customs. She didn't budge. I explained that it would be unsafe for me as a captain to take the boat and its crew out to sea without sufficient fuel. She didn't care. She told me that it wasn't Custom's role to figure this out, that it was the Port Captain's. I will refrain any commentary regarding this fucking stupid ignorant irresponsible response.

We negotiated another "local fare" taxi ride back to the Port Captain's office. I explained what had happened at Customs. The Port Captain spent the first five minutes explaining how her hands were tied, that without Customs clearance, she couldn't issue the documents needed to purchase fuel, without those documents the marina wouldn't sell me the fuel and that I was, using my words, truly fucked. I looked at her and, with complete sincerity in my voice and expression, apologized for not understanding the regulations, making a mistake and for bringing such a problem to her. I told her I couldn't leave without fuel and asked if she could do anything to help me.

In reality, we could have just gone underground and abandoned proceeding legitimately. We still had documents from Panama that would allow us to enter another country. We could get our passports stamped for leaving Costa Rica without involving Customs or the Port Captain. We could buy fuel jugs and get a ride to a gas station to buy fuel. And then we could just leave. But I really didn't want to have to deal with jugs of fuel and there was a very slight risk that if we somehow got caught, the boat could be seized. I'm also not sure how I would have left the Port Captain's office without arousing suspicion that I was going to go illegal.

The Port Captain looked at me, realized how stupid the situation was and started making phone calls to figure out how to solve this ridiculous dilemma and send me and my boat safely on our way. She rolled her eyes at me during her calls to the Custom's office, clearly frustrated at their ignorance of maritime matters and safety. It took about an hour, but she figured out a solution.

Here is how you buy fuel in Costa Rica when your boat isn't allowed by Customs to enter the country, a nightmare to be avoided if at all possible:

1. Get another taxi to the airport. This time I was able to negotiate a $45 round trip, including waiting.
2. Send your crew off to buy fuel jugs in the pouring rain.
3. Visit Customs at the airport again. Have Ms. Uptight Customs Official, with a truly sour look on her face and with palpable resentment, issue a document that says Customs has no objection to your boat leaving the Costa Rica because her boss instructed her to do so.
4. Take the taxi back to town and meet your resourceful crew who has procured four 30 liter fuel jugs from the hardware store.
5. Negotiate with the taxi driver to bring you and your fuel jugs to the gas station just outside of town, fill the jugs, and bring you back.
6. Unload the fuel jugs in the rain that is now coming down in buckets. Take refuge in a beachfront bar to catch your breath and wait for the rain to subside, where the waiter ignores you the entire time and you give up on getting a beer.
7. Carry the four jugs, weighing 55 lbs each, the 150 yards to the beach.
8. Drag your dinghy in the rapidly failing evening light into the water, pull it through the breaking surf, help your crew member aboard and anchor it in chest deep water.
9. Carry each of the four 55 lb jugs 50 yards down the beach, through the surf, through the chest deep water and, with a mighty grunt, hoist them over the gunwhales of the dinghy for your crew to receive them.
10. Since you started the day wanting to look presentable for government officials, do all of the above wearing good clothes and getting them sweaty, soaking wet and tainted wth diesel fuel.
11. When the last jug is hoisted into the dinghy, with a final hearty grunt, hoist yourself into the dinghy and motor back to the boat in the now dark anchorage.
12. Unload the four jugs from the dinghy to the boat, with more of a low moan than a grunt for this operation.
13. Strip off your sweaty, wet, diesel-tainted, once-nice clothes and take a hot shower while your amazing crew member washes such clothes in an attempt to save them.
14. Gratefully permit your crew member to take a hot shower while you drink a glass of Scotch instead of eating dinner.
15. Have you stomach inform you shortly thereafter that drinking the Scotch after sailing for 48 hours, being awake since 3 a.m., dealing with the righteously sour and truly unpleasant Ms. Uptight Customs Official, lugging 220 lbs of diesel across land and through the water wasn't such a good idea and that you should either go to bed or puke. Go to bed.
16. The next morning, take the dinghy back to the beach, haul it for only one first down this time as the tide is going out and walk to Immigration to get your passports stamped for leaving Costa Rica.
17. Realize during your walk that you left your most precious hat somewhere the day before. Feel the loss, but admit that you are not a responsible enough person with respect to hats to become attached to one ever again.
18. Get the passport stamped, this time without controversy, but still over a 30 minute process involving filling out four forms, all with the same information.
19. While you continue to deal with officialdom, have your crew go to the high quality grocery store to buy provisions.
20. Go the bank to pay the fee for your "International Zarpe", the document that allows the boat to leave Costa Rica and enter your next foreign port. This involves first sitting at a desk while a bank employee fills out forms, then waiting in line to pay the fee, plus a commission to the bank for giving you such a pleasure in the morning.
21. Walk back to the Port Captain's office. Walk gingerly, because you spent the whole day yesterday and the morning walking in sandy flip-flops which have rubbed spots on the top of your feet painfully raw.
22. Enter the Port Captain's office to her pleasantly smiling face and her finger pointing to your precious hat sitting on her desk. You aren't responsible, but you are lucky with respect to your precious hat. Triumphantly inform her you have successfully completed everything per her instructions. She is pleased to issue you your International Zarpe, you thank her profusely and she wishes you a good voyage.
23. Meet your crew member at a restaurant for breakfast, enjoyed with feelings of great relief.
24. Walk back to the dinghy, stopping off to give a small box of imported chocolates to the Port Captain as a "thank you" gift.
25. Haul the dinghy to the water for two first downs, as the tide has gone out since the first quarter.
26. Siphon 120 liters of fuel from the four jugs into the boat's tanks without causing an environmental accident but succeeding in spilling small amounts of diesel on the deck that need to be cleaned up in a responsible manner. This is why I didn't want to deal with jugs of fuel and prefer fuel docks.
27. Clean up, stow the jugs and enjoy a cold beer.

This was my Cost Rica Nightmare, mentally and physically torturous and exhausting. All for no sane reason. In hindsight, we would have saved quite a bit of time and money by going "rogue". We ended up having to deal with jugs of fuel anyway going the legit route.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The people are friendly (save for a certain Customs official). But compared to its neighboring countries, it is an abjectly unfriendly place for boats due to its regulations, bureaucracy and high costs. All told, I spent over $2,000 in costs and fees just to satisfy official requirements with entering, staying in and leaving Cost Rica.

We're leaving Cost Rica this evening for Nicaragua. A much easier place to buy fuel on our way to Mexico.

Monday, October 31, 2016

En Route to Bahia Culebra: Miserable Then Tolerable

Our passage has gone from miserable to tolerable.

At first, bashing through choppy waves- bash, smash, bash, smash- into 15-plus knot (true) headwinds, the engines working hard push through the chop at 5 knots, burning double the diesel with two motors running.

I kind of lost it for a little while. Not so much over what was happening at the moment, but from thinking about sailing like this the 660 miles to Puerto Chiapas over the next 10 days and, worse yet, the next 1,200 miles to the Sea of Cortez in February. Bash, smash, bash, smash and the drone of diesels for days and days and days and days. What a horrible ordeal to consider. And then I fucked up dinner, somehow failing to cook rice properly (how I could do that, I don' t know) and then breaking eggs into cold oil in a frying pan because I thought the gas was on, but wasn't. Mmmmmm, raw eggs stirred in oil with undercooked rice. Yum.

In any case, my inner toddler rose in all his juvenile glory and pitched a fit, threw a tantrum, had a meltdown. All expressed with an adult XXX spittle-flying prose that rivaled the script of "Deadwood" in its ability to string together expletives without a single word for polite company between them. Renee watched quietly, until my adult self prevailed and sent the toddler to his room for a timeout.

Adult me asked, "What was I so angry at?" The wind? The waves? Being angry at the weather and planet obviously was stupid and futile. Renee? Myself? Nope, all good there. (Well maybe a little towards myself for not turning on the gas for my eggs.) Which left me nothing to be angry about. Crisis solved. Reality is that I want to get Intermezzo to the Sea of Cortez and the wind and waves will be against us most of the way. I just have to suck it up. Remain calm, carry on. And buy a bunch more fuel jugs to make sure we have enough to run two engines more than I figured we would.

An hour or so after I got a hold of myself, the wind shifted, favorably for once, and let us motorsail on our rhumbline at 5-plus knots with only one engine running. The chop diminished, leaving only the southwest swell to roll us, not comfortable motion, but tolerable and much, much better than the bash, bash, bash through the chop. Conditions remained this easy for the whole night. The only bummer was the rain. It rained all night and Renee and I stood our watches in soaking wet foul weather gear. The boat inside of the boat looks like an outdoor clothing store with our wet gear hanging all over.

It's early morning now. Still raining, on and off. Not enough wind to motorsail, but the engine is keeping up a nice pace as the seas are very calm, with just a gentle swell from the port quarter.

Embarrassing as it is, I'm glad my inner toddler had a chance to get his juvenile frustration out of his system and get it over with at the beginning of this uphill bash. It gave grown-up me the opportunity to prevail and to consider and prevail on the circumstances. We'll get through this trip okay, hard as it might be at times.

Hey, the sun has just come out from between the clouds. That always brightens my spirits.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Golfito to Bahia Culebra

The passage to Golfito from Boca Chica on Friday was a dog. (No offense intended to my canine friends.) I knew the first half would suck as we had to clear Punta Burica which meant sailing directly into the southwest-west winds and seas. It was a horrible bash that required both engines running to keep speed above 4 knots. I was looking forward to the second half after we rounded the point and turned northwest. I shouldn't have been surprised when the wind turned with us so that we continued to head right into it, but I was. The log is filled with expletive comments. At least the swells were coming from the port stern quarter, much more comfortable than bashing into them.

I had a quite a scare around 4 a.m. as we approached Golfo Dulce. There were quite a few fishing boats at the entrance to the gulf and I was trying to sort out their lights with their radar targets. As I raised the binoculars to look at a light a few miles ahead, to my horror appeared the shadowy shape of a large speedboat dead ahead, not 300 feet in front of us! It was completely dark, no navigation lights on at all. Before I could take evasive action it sped across our bow, turned to go alongside us in the opposite direction and then stopped when it was a few hundred feet astern. I can't imagine people would be fishing in a boat like that with no lights on, so I can only suspect that the boat was either involved moving drugs or was law enforcement lurking around trying to catch somebody who was. Either way, I really didn't appreciate them not showing lights, but glad they saw mine and got out of my way. Whew!

Our stop in Golfito was uneventful. We topped up the fuel tanks in the morning, bought a few groceries, did some internet "business" and had an okay dinner at a local restaurant in the early evening. It rained like crazy for the couple of hours we were shopping and eating; the dinghy was filled with a few inches of water when we got into it to return to the boat.

We left Golfito this morning to slog our way along the coast of Costa Rica to Bahia Culebra. It will take us about 48 hours to get there and the bashing upwind into the seas, again, is already getting old after less than six hours in route. The wind should die down towards evening and we can shift course into a slightly better direction after we clear an island 30 miles ahead of us, so I'm hoping it gets a bit more comfortable during the night. We have three passages like this one to get to Chiapas. I will be grateful as we complete each one. This is far from being a pleasure cruise!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Boca Chica: Motorsailing Experiment, Clearing Out, Up the Mast Again, Wrapping Up Our Panama Cruise

We left Bahia Honda on Tuesday morning to sail back to Islas Secas a little over 30 miles to the northwest. It was a beautiful morning with a gentle wind blowing, perfect for sailing. Except that the wind was coming from the northwest. How does this happen? Is it a conspiracy of the oil companies to control the climate of the planet to force sailors to buy more diesel?

Later in the morning and through the afternoon, the wind shifted to the west so I unrolled the jib and began experimenting to develop a strategy for optimal motorsailing. Developing such a strategy under these conditions will likely prove helpful, since winds should be blowing from the southwest to west for most of our long passage to Mexico and the rhumbline for that passage is about the same as the course we were laying to Islas Secas. I have sadly concluded that Intermezzo, like many cruising catamarans, is so terrible at tacking upwind that there is no point even trying. Unless the wind is at greater than a 70 degree angle, we have to have an engine on to make reasonable upwind progress.

I created a custom display on the second chartplotter to display our velocity made good (VMG) to our destination, the ground wind speed and direction and the apparent wind angle (AWA) and apparent wind speed (AWS). VMG is the key metric, the rate at which the boat is making way to where we want to go. If we can point the boat directly at our destination, VMG would be the same as the boat's speed over ground (SOG). If the wind is coming from the same direction as our destination (the curse under which we suffer), we can only get their by motoring against the resistance of the wind. However, if we hoist sails and turn away from the wind until they fill, the motor gets a boost from the wind and our SOG increases. Since we are now no longer pointed directly at our destination, our VMG is less than our SOG because only some of our forward motion is towards our destination. Yet our VMG motorsailing veering slightly from a direct course can be greater than if we just motored directly because the boat is going faster. The goal is to find the optimal wind angle to maximize VMG.

My experiments on the way to Islas Secas were conducted while flying only the jib. I will conduct similar experiments while flying the mainsail as well, but I suspect that a jib-only motorsailing strategy will be better when tacking is taken into consideration, as I will explain later. I found that maximum VMG was achieved at an AWA of about 40 degrees. With a ground wind speed of around 12 knots, we achieved a VMG of about 6 knots, almost 20 percent faster than our direct fuel-efficient motoring SOG of around 5.2 knots. As we got closer to our destination our VMG decreased, as the course we were sailing diverged more and more from our intended course. It was only worth motorsailing if VMG remained greater than our direct motoring SOG.

If we were just sailing, without the engine, we would bring the boat across the wind and sail on the opposite tack, zig-zagging our way upwind. Intermezzo's tacking angle of about 140 degrees brings tears to your eyes when you do this, which is why we need to motorsail upwind. With a motor running, we can reduce this tacking angle to around 90 degrees. Plus, if the wind isn't coming exactly from the direction of our destination, one tack is more favorable than the other and we don't have to cross completely through the wind to fill the sails on the unfavorable tack. With the wind coming from the west and our destination to the northwest, the port tack was the favorable tack for motorsailing; crossing over to a starboard tack would actually result in a VMG of near zero. So when VMG dropped on the port tack to below our direct motoring SOG, we rolled in the jib and just motored directly to our destination. I'm not sure if having the mainsail up would have increased our speed enough to make it worth the effort of hoisting it and dropping it or the annoyance of letting it flap around luffing while we motored directly, compared to just unrolling and rolling the jib. That will be the next experiment.

So, it looks like a decent strategy for our passage to Mexico is to motorsail on the port tack at an AWA of about 40 degrees and then motor back directly to the rhumbline when we get too close to shore, an asymmetric zig-zag course up the coast. Looking at wind maps, it seems like heading further offshore might be beneficial, too, to try to catch more of the prevailing southwesterly winds and to give us more sea room for our motorsailing strategy.

Okay, enough with all my technical sailing musings. Back to the travelogue.

We arrived at the anchorage at the north of Isla Cavada just after 3 pm, the same anchorage where we had spent a few days at the beginning of our cruise. I really love this anchorage, definitely one of my favorites of the trip. I like the steep lush island, the little white sand beach, the gap through which you can see the windward sea and islands beyond, from which a nice cooling breeze often blows. When I get to posting pictures, you'll at least see what I mean; you will have to imagine the breeze, though. We enjoyed a very pleasant afternoon and evening there.

The next morning we weighed anchor to head to Boca Chica, where we hoped to officially check out of Panama and get our zarpe to Mexico, the vital document you need from the country you are leaving to enter another country from sea around here.

Boca Chica is a nice little bay with a small town with a few sportfishing resorts, a couple of small hotels and some nice residences around it. When we arrived we took the dinghy to town to do a brief reconnaissance of the docks and landmarks and then I got in touch with Moisés, the maritime authority representative from Pedregal, via cell phone. He told us he would drive all the officials required to check out and for our zarpe from Pedregal to Boca Chica and meet us at the town dock in the morning.

Sure enough, shortly after 10 am the next morning, Moisés, accompanied by representatives from immigration and customs arrived at the dock and 45 minutes, a sheave of papers and $95 dollars later, I had me my zarpe to Mexico.

Officially, we had to leave Boca Chica at 6 pm, but we knew there was nobody watching us to make sure we did. So we used the rest of day constructively to attend to boat chores. I went up the mast for the fourth time and, success! I finally replaced the main halyard and switched out the anchor light bulb for an LED. The main now raises and lowers much more easily and the LED consumes about 1/10th the energy of the incandescent bulb.

In the evening, we dinghied to the Hotel Boca Brava for dinner. It's a very nice boutique hotel with a decent restaurant. We shared ceviche and a fresh salad, I had "chicken pomodoro", a rough attempt at a light version of chicken Parmesan and Renee had a tasty grilled yellowtail tuna, all of which we washed down with a nice, crisp, chilled Argentinian white wine and followed with desert and locally-grown coffee. It was a very elegant way to end our Panama cruise.

We left Boca Chica early this morning just in case any officials happened to come by and headed to Isla Gamez for the day. We'll leave here around 3 pm to set sail for Golfito, about 15 hours away. It will be only a short stop in Gofito, just long enough to refuel and pick up a few groceries. We're going to come in "under the radar" as illegal aliens again.

We really enjoyed our Panama cruise. As with all good things, you feel a little sad when it's over. Yet mostly I feel excited about moving Intermezzo closer to its final destination and even more so about seeing loved ones over the holidays.

Our long slog northeastwards begins.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Bahia Honda: Captain Renee, Trading for Coconuts

Saturday we sailed from Isla Jicaron back around the south end of Coiba and north to Isla Canal de Afuera. Wouldn't you know it? The wind was not from the southwest or west as forecast and as it had been the whole time we have been here. No. It blew from the north! Right from where we were heading. Again. Unbelievable. Fortunately, the wind was light and the seas flat so it was easy motoring, not bashing like it was when we were going the other way.

Renee was appointed captain for the day. She knows almost all there is to know about the boat and is a capable sailor, but we have settled into roles where I usually plan our passage and make most of the decisions when we are on it, in consultation with Renee, of course, but definitely taking the lead role. And we have settled into who does what when we lower anchor, raise anchor and a host of other tasks. So, it seemed like a good idea to mix things up a bit, have Renee take the lead and each of us do what the other normally does for a change.

Renee captained the boat admirably and I lived the life of luxury, hardly doing a thing, except for a few times in response to orders barked at me from the helm.

When we arrived at Isla Canal de Afuera we discovered the anchorages to be a bit tricky. They are quite small, hemmed in by cliffs, small islands and rocks, with rock-strewn sandy bottoms that slope steeply from the shore. Picking where to drop the anchor was difficult. Too far from shore and the depth requires a lot of chain which means the arc of our potential swing around the anchor could brings us too close to the shore or outlying rocks. Too close to shore and the water wouldn't be deep enough at low tide. On top of that, we wanted to drop the anchor in as much sand as possible because an anchor can hold in a rocky bottom in one direction, but often not if boat swings to another due to current or wind.

I tried to help Renee decide on where to drop the hook, but found that it was difficult for me to offer advice without "feeling" firsthand what was going on by driving the boat myself. It's some sort of kinetic process for me, where I seem to get a better sense of my surroundings by moving the boat around slowly, taking visual bearings on land features, looking at the depth sounder and down at the bottom, feeling the wind and the current and unconsciously building a spatial model of the anchorage to pick the right place for the boat. I have done it hundreds of times, which is enough to get competent, but apparently not enough to explain it verbally to another. Maybe after a thousand times, I'll be able to. In any case, we found a nice spot in which we could anchor with confidence unless that wind blew hard from the east-south quadrant, which was unlikely, tucked into a small cove with a tiny beach, some little islets, and protected from swells in all directions.

We slept well and woke on Sunday to a beautiful morning of bright sunshine, blue water, our pretty little cove and the mountaintops of the Panamanian mainland off to the east graced by puffy white clouds. We lingered for a while, enjoying our surroundings and then headed off to Bahia Honda, a large sheltered bay on the mainland to the east. I needn't write which direction the wind was blowing in when we started, but thankfully the light winds shifted to the south as the morning wore on and we were able to sail a good portion of the way.

Renee suggested we visit Bahia Honda because there was a village there with "limited supplies" and she felt like a little civilization after being in such remote islands for so many days. We anchored off a tiny village where music was playing from two bars on shore. Renee got caught up with trying to make airline reservations by relaying satellite text messages to and from her daughter, so I went to shore to find out just how limited supplies were.

The village is on a tiny island in the middle of the bay and consists of two bars, a tiny aborrotes (like a small corner store), a police station (manned by two policemen), a primary school and small homes dotted around the island for its approximately 100 residents. There are no roads to or around here; you get everywhere by boat and walk around on narrow trails when you get there. It is very isolated.

After confirming that supplies were indeed limited at the aborrotes, I invited myself to join a group of four young guys at one of the bars and to drink some beer and learn more about the place. After a couple of hours of research, I had arranged for a delivery of fruits, vegetables, eggs and bread to the boat in the morning, been offered a large swath of property for sale, met the local indigenous chief and bought about 20 beers, four of which I consumed myself. Meanwhile, Renee had given up on me returning to the boat to pick her up and bring her to land and had gone kayaking instead. That was probably a good thing as the bar was men-only, a very macho scene and I don't think she would have felt comfortable there for long.

Later in the evening we had the first of many visitors float up to Intermezzo. A guy named Kennedy, his wife Olivia and his young sun Octavio motored up in their panga to offer us coconuts, bananas, plantains and limes. We paid a few dollars for some of each and gave them some gas for their outboard. They were very nice and very friendly, telling us that quite a few sailboats used to visit the bay but the numbers have decreased a lot in recent years. Visiting sailors apparently have been an appreciated source of clothes, batteries, books, school supplies, soda, mechanical assistance and cash and the people that depend on them for these things are definitely feeling the pinch from the reduced numbers.

In the morning more people started showing up. A man with his two children stopped by in his handbuilt traditional canoe and gave us coconuts and more lemons in exchange for a soda, toys and schools supplies for the kids and a paperback book for him, which he asked for to help learn English. Before he left, an older man named Domingo showed up, a local celebrity of sorts as his name is mentioned in two cruising guides. Domingo talked with us for a little while, telling us about the problem he was having with his generator among other things and said he would be back with some stuff from his farm. Then the guys from the bar with whom I had arranged the food delivery showed up with a pitiful bag of yucca and plantains; no eggs or bread. By this time we had figured out that these visits were all about trading, not money. The trading is as much a way of socializing as it is one of commerce. The economics are pretty simple. The locals trade what grows in their garden or in the jun
gle for what we have lying around the boat that we don't use. (Actually, we had assembled a big bag of stuff we had lying around the house like pens, pencils, notebooks, flashlights, toys etc. before we left to give to the right people at the right time on this voyage.) On a dollar-measured basis, the locals get the better end of the trade, but realistically, a pen and notebook one of us picked up at tradeshow is worth nothing to us and a bunch of fresh bananas which grow here in profusion is worth next to nothing to them, so it's a very fair deal and everybody comes out ahead.

By midday, Intermezzo was richly provisioned with coconuts, bananas, lemons, oranges, yuccas, and local potatoes, but still lacking eggs and bread. So we took the dinghy back to town, and bought some eggs and flour, since there was no bread. Renee baked two loaves of special concentrated boat bread (our yeast was old) and a nice plantain bread. For dinner, I made a Cuban-style yucca dish with a lemon-orange-garlic sauce and the rest of our skipjack tuna. It turned out quite good and I now know how to prepare and cook yucca, which I find I like quite a bit.

Tomorrow we leave Bahia Honda and make our way towards Boca Chica, where we will clear out of Panama in a few days and begin our long passage north to Mexico.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Isla Jicaron: Masked Men, the Sailing Blues and Brigher Days

On Wednesday morning we woke up anchored in Bahia Damas at the southeast corner of Isla Coiba excited about taking the dinghy to explore the pristine coastline and a small estuary nearby. Our outlook for the day changed quickly as a panga motored purposefully towards us with three men, two with black masks covering their faces the other cradling an M16 rifle in his arms.

The actions and body language of the men in the approaching boat didn't look menacing, but the black masks did. However in Latin America, police and military often wear masks while on duty to avoid being recognized and attacked by the bad guys when they are not. So, given that we were anchored in a national park not too far from a ranger station, odds were in our favor that these were park rangers. As the boat drew nearer, however, I sent Renee down below while I waited for the men to introduce themselves and disclose their intentions , not that I had any definite plan for defending her from two masked thugs and a fit guy toting an M16 if they identified themselves as thieves with the intent on robbing us. Getting her out of sight away from the thin front line just seemed like the chivarilistic thing to to. Glancing at Renee inside, I could see she was forming a plan to defend herself involving bear spray and a spear. She clearly didn't intend to go down without a fight, desp
ite the asymmetry of the tactical situation.

As suspected, the men were park rangers and we could relax, at least relax as well as one can in the middle of nowhere in Central America with masked men and an M16. I was asked if I had my park permits, which I didn't. The masked thug rangers weren't very polite and one of them blurted out that I could be fined $1,000. These are the situations in which my crappy Spanish seems to come to my rescue. I draw upon the depths of my vocabulary, combining words more suited to a Shakespeare play than a normal conversation and reinforce them with theatrical diction and gestures, usually much to the mirth of those to whom I am speaking. In this case my incredulous, singsong "Un mille dolares?, was accompanied by wide eyes, raised eyebrows and a look of tremendous shock and concern.

All three of the rangers took pity on my reaction and reassured me in unison not to worry, there wouldn't be any $1,000 fine, they just wanted to make me aware of the seriousness of my situation. I looked appropriately relieved and asked them what I needed to do to comply with regulations. They said that I needed to bring the boat to the ranger station, fill out the appropriate forms and pay the appropriate fees. The younger unmasked ranger with the M16 was much more polite and friendly. He added that the fees for anchoring are really expensive, suggesting that we might not want to anchor in the park. We were already aware that most boats don't due to the prohibitive costs, but I didn't volunteer this knowledge and just put on my worried look again. I told them I wanted get whatever permits I needed and pay the proper park fees, but that my boat was pretty slow and it would take me two hours get to the ranger station and two hours to get back to the anchorage, plus whatever
time it took to do the paperwork which would likely be a slow, laborious process.

Well, the one thing I've noticed in Central America is that people are averse to slow moving forms of transportation, like walking, bikes and sailboats, and taking too much time to get somewhere. When I told the Port Captain in Pedrigal that it took us five hours to make it up the river to check in to Panama, he looked sincerely shocked, gave me his phone number and told me, "You don't have to do that again. We'll take a taxi and meet you at the mouth of the river when you check out of the country." When I told the rangers how long it would for us to go get the permit, they reacted similarly, looking at each other and and agreeing, "Oh no, of course nobody should have to take that much time. That doesn't make any sense." They took pity on us for having such a slow means of travel. We all sort of sat there for a few moments, at a loss of what to do. Then I asked, "Are there any anchorages in the park waters that don't require a fee?" The thug rangers grunted that they didn
't know, that I would have to go to the office to answer that question. They young M16 guy told me, "Well, if you go around to the other side of the island, nobody will see you and we don't patrol there." I nodded my head and said "Yo comprendo, yo comprendo" before he had do actually wink, wink at me to get his meaning across.

I told the rangers that we would leave the anchorage and they left satisfied they had done their job for the day. We were bummed that we wouldn't be able to explore the beautiful bay, but felt fortunate to have avoided fines, fees and losing a day to officialdom. So we raised anchor and set sail for Isla Jicaron, on the other side of Coiba.

Truth be told, I knew that Coiba required permits, that anchoring was expensive and that I should have checked in at the ranger station before we anchored. However, the information I had on the park varied widely on what the actual requirements are and the ranger station looked completely deserted when we passed by it the day before. Most of the published information indicated that anchoring fees were charged in a few places but not most. The general advice was, that except for the anchorage right in front of the ranger station, to anchor and wait for rangers to come to collect whatever fees are due. The rangers that visited us were adamant about not being able to handle any money, which was a welcome surprise to me in this region where bribes and corruption are commonplace. Even if expensive, I would have paid the appropriate fees to support the preservation and protection of the park. I just really didn't want to burn the diesel and time to backtrack to the ranger station
if I could help it. If the park administration would make its requirements clear and publicize them, I would have made more of an effort to comply. But like many things here, the actual requirements are to a large degree left up to the discretion of the person in charge, require timely in-person consultation and vary subjectively with the person, mood, season and politeness of the permittee . So I decided to wing it and probably saved $400 by doing so, but feel guilty that I didn't contribute my fair share to support such a beautiful place. I'll make up for it somehow.

The sail to Isla Jicaron was a wet, torturous, six hour motorsailing bash against strong winds and steep choppy seas in mostly heavy rain. As we approached the island, we decided to head to the anchorage on the north side to be sheltered from the swell coming from the southwest. When we got there, a decent swell was coming into the cove from the northwest, making for rolly conditions, just like we had experienced at the north side of Coiba. It turns out that offshore weather was resulting in mixed southwest and northwest swells, both making their way to where we were. It was getting late and we were wet and tired, so we decided to drop anchor anyway and deal with the rolling, which at times was violent enough to open cabinet doors, something that hardly ever happens on Intermezzo even when sailing in rough conditions.

After dinner, we took out the charts and cruising guides and downloaded wind predictions for upcoming days to figure out what we wanted to do. Our original plan was to sail from Jicaron to Isla Montuosa, a tiny island about 25 miles further offshore to the west of Coiba that is widely touted as being very pretty and worth the effort to visit. The prevailing southwest winds this time of year would allow us to sail on nearly a beam reach from Jicaron. Well, we joke that we can predict the wind direction by choosing a sailing destination and the joke isn't often funny because it turns out to be true; the wind comes from right where we want to go. Instead of the normal southwest winds, the winds will be coming right out of the west this week, meaning we would have to motor the whole seven hour trip rather than sail. Plus, with the unusual northwest swell present, we would likely be doing a fair amount of bashing. And almost certainly during periods of heavy rain.

I felt pretty down and despondent. We got chased out of the anchorage we wanted to explore this morning. The day's sailing was unpleasant. It has rained every day. I hadn't been off the boat for many days except for short times on small beaches. The boat was rolling uncomfortably. The weather forecast was for rain, rain and more rain. And we couldn't sail to the place we really wanted to visit. It looked to me like our Panama cruise was getting skunked. Renee tried to cheer me up and tell me it wasn't that bad, but I went to bed feeling pretty blue and fed up.

When we got up in the morning, it was still raining, but the swell had diminished to be tolerable. Even in the dreary morning light, the shoreline still looked lush, green and beautiful, inviting us to go ashore to explore. Later in the morning, the rain diminished so we decided to launch the dinghy and spend a half hour looking around. It was a fortunate decision.

As soon as we landed the dinghy, we received a squeaking greeting from a small white-faced monkey in a small tree on the beach, while howler monkeys grunted from taller trees further behind in the jungle. Isla Jicaron is totally uninhabited, protected as a national park and, based on how shy the wildlife is, very rarely visited by humans. Except for the inevitable plastic flotsam that washes up nowadays on every beach, everywhere on this planet, the island is pristine. Fresh water streams flow out of the jungle, cutting through the beach sand to empty into the sea. The foliage consists of tall tropical hardwoods with various densely leaved shorter trees inbetween them and coconut palms at the edge of the forest along the beach. There are lots of birds, mostly heard but not seen, the visible ones often brightly colored.

The rain stopped and the sun came out. We explored the shoreline, took a bath in a freshwater stream and I did "laps" up and down the beach and got a much needed three mile run in. We happily turned a planned short visit into a lovely three hour excursion. The beauty of it all made suffering an evening and night in a rolly anchorage worth it.

It was about two o'clock when we returned to Intermezzo and decided we had enough time to sail to the anchorage at the south of the island where it might not be as rolly. We were able to sail most of the four miles, accompanied for part of the way by a small pod of bottlenose dolphins who played some sort of dashing in-and-out game with each other while swimming in front of our bows. It was cloudy, but no rain fell on us for a change.

We were heartened to find the southern anchorage nicely sheltered with only a gentle swell, a pretty shoreline and with the setting sun streaming bright rays of light through the clouds in front of us and a rainbow glowing across the sky behind us. I felt so much better than I had the previous night. It had been a great day.

Today we took the dinghy to explore the shore of the adjacent smaller Isla Jicaronita, separated by Jicaron by only a narrow channel. Like our experience the previous day, there was lots of nature's beauty to enjoy. Tidal pools, rock formations, shells, orchids, thousands of hermit crabs that pretend to be just shells when they see you, surrounded by beautiful water of many shades of blue, green, turquoise, white sand beaches, rocky reefs and steeply rising green-covered land. All this and not a person or boat to be seen all day. And it was sunny the whole time.

We finished our time on shore with a yoga session. I've figured out that the beach is best for doing standing and balancing postures, because unlike the boat, it doesn't rock and move, although it can be tricky to balance when the sand shifts under your standing foot or the beach has a slope to it or when a strong wind blows. The boat is a better place for floor series, as you, your mat and towel don't get all covered with sand that is always pretty wet here from all the rain. In either location, if the sun is out, the temperature and humidity are close to what it's like in a hot yoga studio. The only thing missing are mirrors, but that just increases the importance of body awareness. I'm getting a good mind-body workout, several of my poses have achieved new "personal bests" and it has been kind of fun adapting a yoga practice to this setting. Yoga is perfect for sailing. A means to keep you healthy, physically and mentally fit with little or no equipment and keeps you flexi
ble so you can contort yourself into cramped engine compartments, keep you balance during rough weather and maintain good body mechanics awareness for more efficient, less injury prone hauling of lines, winding on winches and the like.

Today was another good day and our Panama cruise isn't skunked.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Isla Coiba: Lost Fish, Saved Bird, Bashing In the Rain and A Good Day

We have made our way from Islas Secas to the southeast end of Isla Coiba with an overnight stop in Islas Contreras, a total sailing distance of 55 nautical miles. No big event or story to tell, just a lot of little ones.

The last night that we were anchored off Islas Secas, a totally dark fishing boat appeared in the gloomy evening light a little more than a quarter mile off our stern. It didn't seem to be doing anything, just sitting there. Watching us? We were suspicious and considered our options; stay put and take our chances, head out to sea or move to an anchorage close to a small, nearly deserted resort in the next cove over. We decided to trust that the fishermen were fishing and stayed put. The fisherman left sometime during the night and all was well.

Renee put out her fishing lines when we left the Secas and it wasn't long until she hooked a nice skipjack tuna. Unfortunately, I used a line that was too thick and stiff to hang the fish over the stern to bleed out and its tail slipped through the knot and we lost the fish. I felt terrible for having killed it and then not eaten it, but Renee reminded me that something in the sea would make a nice meal of it. Still, I felt a smudge on my karma. A couple of hours later, a bird went after the lure and got hooked. I worked as quickly as I could to haul the line in and try to save the bird, but it took a while, the bird either cartwheeling on the surface or dragged below it time after time. I was sure it had drowned and my karmic smudge would become darker. Thankfully, the bird was miraculously still alive when I pulled it out of the water, not badly injured and I was able to cut off the barbed end of the hook and pull it out of the bird's wing. The bird bit me as I let it go, w
hich seemed fair enough, and though in shock and worse for the wear, seemed like it had a good chance of recovering from its frightful ordeal. I hope it did.

Much of the sail from Islas Secas to Islas Contreras was in very heavy rain sometimes with visibility of less than half a mile. We saw a few commercial fishing boats before the rain obscured them. Radar doesn't work very well in heavy rain even after tweaking the controls; we couldn't pick up any of the commercial boats as targets on the screen. Not comforting. When the rain stopped for a while, we saw two sport fishing boats, one towing the other. I steered a course to avoid them, but they kept turning to intercept me. I figured they needed help, so I slowed down and let them get within yelling distance. They were lost and asked to be pointed in the direction of Islas Secas. I yelled a compass bearing to them in Spanish, but I guess they didn't know how to use a compass as they asked me to point in the right direction. They set out where I indicated. I hope they made it.

The Islas Contreras anchorage was nothing special. In rained like crazy though, through the evening, night and morning. By midday, I was tired of sitting around, the rain had eased somewhat, so we decided to set out for the north end of Isla Coiba, about 13 nm away. Renee put out her fishing lines right when we left and within five minutes had another skipjack tuna hooked. I was much more careful this time and didn't lose the fish.

The trip to Coiba was a real basher. We had to motor west against 20-25 knot headwinds and steep chop for a couple of hours before we could turn south and get some relief. The boat pounded like crazy and we could barely keep up five knots of speed. It rained hard the whole way and I was soaked to skin and cold by the time we arrived at the Coiba anchorage. One good thing about running the engines is that they make hot water. So, once we were anchored, I had a nice hot shower, put a sweatshirt and pants and poured myself a glass of Scotch. This was not something I expected to do in Panama!

The anchorage at the north end of Coiba was not good. The west running swell wrapped around the point of the cove right into the anchorage, the waves then reflecting of the beach to roll us in both directions. It was really uncomfortable on a catamaran; it would have been horrible in a monohull. The swell didn't make for good night's sleep.

Thankfully, the weather cleared a bit in the morning and we departed the rolly anchorage right after breakfast. Renee put her lines in the water again and about 30 minutes after we left she hooked a beautiful 10-plus pound dorado (mahi-mahi). We landed it expertly, kept it on the boat and now have a nice stock of filets in the fridge and freezer.

We stopped for a few hours and anchored off pretty little Granito de Oro (Grain of Gold), a tiny islet with a beautiful sandy beach, small grove of trees at its center and surrounded by coral and rock reefs. I kayaked over to the island, took a look around, did a little snorkeling and some yoga on the beach while Renee cleaned up the boat from the fish butchery. It was a very nice extended lunch stop.

We are anchored now in Bahia Damas, a large bay at the south end of Coiba. The shoreline is thick jungle and we can hear the howler monkeys in the trees. It is a very nice spot and we're looking forward to exploring tomorrow. We were able to sail most of the way here downwind on the Code 0 in a mixture of partly cloudy sunshine, overcast skies and rain, which was thankfully limited to only short periods of light misting. Along the way we got to see a large humpback whale breaching high out of the water about a mile ahead of us. Tonight we enjoyed a delicious dinner of fresh grilled dorado filets over rice and vegetables with a garlic-butter-lemon-herb sauce thanks to Renee's fish catching skills and the boat's motivated chef. It was a good day.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Isla Parida: City of David, Threading the Needle Through Breakers

Yesterday we headed back downriver from Pedrigal and out to sea to resume our Panama island cruise.

The day prior we took a taxi into the nearby city of David to take care of business requiring a decent Internet connection and visit the grocery store to replenish perishables. David is the second or third largest city in Panama, depending on the reference, with a population of 140,000. We only visited the center of town, but it seems like a fairly clean, safe city but other than having lots of places to shop, not very interesting architecturally, historically or otherwise. I did talk way into getting the wifi code at the historic Hotel Gran Nacional, which was built in 1945 and, judging by the photos on the wall, has been visited by lots of American movie stars, particularly in the 1950-60's.

We raised anchor in Pedrigal at 10 a.m., about two hours before high tide so we could get over the couple of shallow spots along the way. The trip down river was uneventful, under an overcast sky and with periods rain, heavy at times. By the time we reached Boca Brava, the mouth of the estuary, the tide was ebbing with a decent current flowing out into the sea. Our cruising guide advises entering and leaving Boca Brava during slack water, explaining that "brava" means "strong anger". I realized that going out during an ebb flow was particularly not a good idea, as the current would be opposing the ocean swell and wind which causes tall, steep waves, but I decided to proceed anyway and survey the conditions. We could always turn around and head back in if it was too rough.

The breakers along the shallows each side of the Boca Brava channel were more numerous and bigger than when we had entered during a flood tide, but they appeared to be only along the sides, not ahead of us. The seas in the channel were a bit bouncy, but it looked like there was a clear path out so we proceeded onward.

As we motored along, plowing through the chop, the ebb current strengthened and the field of breakers expanded, encroaching upon the channel ahead of us. It was starting to look like we would have to turn around and wait out the tide, but then Renee and I both saw a relatively clear patch of water to port, a path between two patches of breakers and into safe water. We decided to go for it and I turned Intermezzo around 180 degrees on the crest of a wave to head past the clear patch so that we could turn back up to pass through with the bow angled into the waves rather than having them on the beam, a bad idea for a catamaran.

The waves in the channel were steep and close together, but most only about three feet high, with the occasional five footer. As we proceeded through the "clear patch", the predominant waves increased to a very steep five to seven feet, with near-breakers up to ten feet high. The wave pattern was quite turbulent and it was really weird to see a pyramid of a wave form in front of us, complete with three sloping sides and a point at the top. I called them "mountains" as I pointed them out to Renee.

I felt a bit apprehensive as we began our passage through the maelstrom, but then adrenaline and confidence gained from sailing a too small boat in too rough conditions as a kid kicked in and I started having fun. Intermezzo was handling the conditions well and the waves were far enough apart and easy enough to read for me to be able to pick a safe path over and through them, threading between breaking crests of the biggest waves. I was waving, smiling and saying "hello" to the white water as it rolled by us a boat length away on either or both sides and having a great time. Renee, not so much. She seemed much more reserved, concerned and her adrenaline had signaled to her that it was time to be afraid, not playtime. She seemed to relax a bit has she observed the amazing skill of the man at the helm and saw that, for him, these conditions were child's play. She appeared visibly relieved when we finally passed through all the rough stuff and back to normal sailing and threw herself upon me in gratitude for saving her life. (Well, not really, but as the author of this blog I can embellish a little if I want to, right?)

We anchored in a small cove at the northeast tip of Isla Parida for the night and enjoyed a dinner concocted of sautéed cabbage and vegetables, eggs and lightly fried leftover brown rice. It was really tasty.

Today we are heading to a new island group about 20 miles away, Islas Secas, beginning a circuit of islands that will return us to where we can clear out of Panama at the end of the month and start heading back north. I'll outline our plans and how we arrived at them in the next blog post.

(In case you are wondering why I haven't posted photographs to accompany blog posts, it's because we only have slow satellite communication most of the time and when we have cell data service, it's not much faster and won't let allow me to connect my computer to the Internet through my phone. Next time I have a good Internet connection and the time, I'll catch up and post pictures to illustrate the narrative.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Isla Parida, Isla Gamez, Pedregal: The Blog Is Finally Up to Date

Okay, here we go. This post will bring the blog up to date. For sure. At times my writing style may be abridged to do so.

Our first night (Wednesday night) after arriving at Isla Parida caused me some worry and apprehension. While we were at anchor during the day, we remarked how great it was to be the only boat in such a remote and secluded anchorage. As the evening approached, we thought it highly improbable that anyone would join us and, once night fell, it would be impossible for anyone to navigate safely through all the rocks and reefs in darkness, so we would be safe and secure from any unwelcome visitors. However, at dusk a fishing boat entered the cove, set out its line of hooks and buoys, and then anchored 150 yards away from us. We weren't alone anymore.

There were three muscular fishermen on the boat and just the two lithe and fit of us. Clearly a case of asymmetric power, not in our favor. If the fisherman decided that we were ripe for the picking, there was no 9-1-1 to call for help and only a couple of people on shore that wouldn't really be able to offer any assistance, even if we could get their attention. Not a situation I like to be in.

A lot of my anxiety was due to only having returned to sailing in Central America a week ago. The difference between being completely on your own and alone in a remote place and being a phone call and five minutes from emergency services and with friendly neighbors in California is striking. However, the reality is that, all risks considered, it is probably as safe here as it is there. The large majority of people are friendly and robberies and other crimes against sailors are very rare. When I first got to Mexico last year, I was pretty wary for a couple of weeks, but soon felt very comfortable and safe, the entire way down the coast to Costa Rica.

Still, this was Panama, it was just the two of us, and accepting that we were at the mercy of the fishermen's intentions wasn't easy that night. We locked the boat up tight, inspected and made ready our arsenal of self-defense armaments, and slept with one eye open. All our worry was for naught though, as the fishermen were just fishermen and left early in the morning before we got up. They returned each night thereafter while we were there and we just smiled and waved to each other when they arrived.

We stayed anchored in Ensenada del Vardero on Thursday and Friday to enjoy its peacefulness and scenery and get a few boat chores done.

We tackled the sliding door lock first. We had purchased a short length of chain and a padlock in Gofito and I had a stainless steel padeye in my box of miscellaneous and spare parts. We drilled some holes and attached the padeye near the door jamb, trimmed the chain to length and, voila, we had a satisfactory way to secure the boat, even if it didn't look very elegant. Actually, the big chain and padlock look more robust than the puny sliding glass door lock, so the temporary fix might be more of a visual deterrent. Renee sewed a silicone sleeve around the chain to protect the anodized aluminum door handle and fiberglass. Scratch another item off the list.

Next we set to scraping the hull of the barnacles that had accumulated on it over the summer. The hulls had multiple small patches of them, but the two stub keels were badly fouled. The marina had agreed to keep the bottom clean while the boat was laid up there, so at first I was kind of mad that they hadn't done a better job. Then I remembered how muddy and dirty the water was in the Puntarenas estuary and how difficult and horrible it must be for diving to clean a boat bottom and I decided they had done an okay job, under the circumstances. Renee set to scraping the patches off the hulls while I focused on cleaning the propellers and saildrives. That's when I discovered another boat problem.

Intermezzo has two fancy Danish Gori propellers that fold when they aren't spinning to reduce drag while sailing. They also fold and unfold in two directions, which lets you select a normal propeller pitch for maximum power to push through wind, current and waves or an "overdrive" pitch for maximum fuel economy in calmer conditions. They have worked great so far on this voyage and have probably saved us over a hundred gallons of diesel, plus made the boat run more quietly. Obviously these props are much more mechanically complicated (and much more expensive!) than fixed propellers. Well, the port propeller isn't folding and when I first examined it underwater, wasn't completely unfolding either. It seemed to be jammed at about 75% unfolded which might explain why I thought the port engine was not putting out as much power as usual. I worked on trying to free it up for about an hour, in countless dives under the boat while holding my breath until I started seeing stars. I was
able to get it fully unfolded and visually confirmed, from a safe distance, that it unfolded when running, so it is working well enough. But it's stuck in the "overdrive" mode, which reduces power available to us if we need it, which is of moderate concern, and we are dragging an unfolded prop around when we are sailing, which is of minor concern. I sent an email to the prop manufacturer requesting advice on how to fix it underwater or, if that's not feasible, how to fix it when we next haul out. Put another item on the list.

On Saturday we sailed a short three miles to Isla Gamez, a tiny island just off the northeast end of Isla Parida. Gamez is a pretty little island with a nice white sand beach. We anchored there for a couple of nights, did yoga on the beach, finished cleaning the barnacles and generally relaxed. During the morning, evening and night we were again the only boat in the small anchorage. But it was the weekend and in the daytime we were descended upon by a half dozen power boats, big and small, and had to share the place with partying people with competing loud music. We were anchored far enough off the beach for it to be tolerable and enjoyed the people-watching.

Today we left Isla Gamez at 6 am to make our way to Pedrigal, a port town located up a jungle estuary near the major city of David, to officially check in to Panama. The dawn air was cool and the boat was wet from the night's rainfall, Renee's rainwater catchment bucket for laundry full. We headed to Boca Brava, one of the three mouths into the estuary, where we had to thread our way between lines of breakers along the shoals each side of the main channel. Again, a combination of electronic, paper chart and eyeball pilotage was necessary to stay in safe water.

As we entered the estuary, the tall mountains of mainland Panama lay ahead, the clouds draping themselves over their tops. It was sunny out, but the gentle breeze from the land was still morning cool. The lower half of the estuary is lined with lush jungle vegetation sloping steeply up from the water's edge. Upstream, the land flattens and it's mainly mangroves along the banks. The estuary is totally undeveloped, save for one or two tiny farms we saw carved out of the jungle. Navigation is a bit tricky as their are a lot of shoals and shallows, but we had a GPS track from the Sarana cruising guide and were traveling on a rising half high tide.

When we reached Pedrigal, we were underwhelmed. It is a tiny little port, just a couple of dilapidated docks, a few small buildings for the Navy, marine authority and customs and a small marina with a fuel dock. I took the dingy into the marina while Renee guarded Intermezzo to figure out how to clear in.

A guy at the marina directed me to the marine authority office and I walked in and introduced myself. Nobody spoke English, but my Spanish was good enough to explain my situation and understand most of what they told me in response. I was surprised when I sat down at a desk with one of the marine authority officers and it seemed like he had never cleared in a boat before. He had to look at previous filled in forms to figure out how to fill in my form and I ended up helping him get the right information in the right boxes. Then he asked for our passports and disappeared.

I sat waiting for about a half and hour and then the office started filling up with new people- two guys from immigration, a woman from customs, plus a more knowledgeable marine authority official. I was told that they all needed to go out to Intermezzo anchored off the small Navy pier in the estuary. They all piled into the dinghy with me and I dutifully ferried them, all clad in bright orange life jackets, to Intermezzo. Renee looked a bit surprised upon our arrival, but quickly threw a shirt over her bathing suit top and welcomed them aboard. We got them all cold sodas and ten minutes and $45 later we had immigrated into Panama, cleared Customs and ticked all but one remaining box to get the boat cleared in. We were told that a representative from the Ministry of Health would be by to inspect the boat in the morning.

I ferried the party of officials back to the marina and went back into the office to finish the paperwork. It turned out that the health official was on his way and would inspect the boat this afternoon. He arrived about 15 minutes later and together we got into the dinghy and zoomed back over to Intermezzo, the dinghy being much lighter and faster than with my last full load of passengers. I announced his arrival and purpose to Renee as he boarded Intermezzo. He was a friendly guy, did a quick walk around the decks and popped his head into the galley, where I helpfully informed him, "No tenemos insectos", to which he smiled and rolled his eyes slightly, seemingly acknowledging the bullshit nature of his inspection. He told us everything looked great, we had a beautiful boat and there was no need to fumigate, for which I was grateful.

The health guy and I returned to the office, more papers were stamped, I was relieved of $30 for our health inspection, and we were done. Almost. It turns out we need a transit permit, too. I actually knew that we needed a cruising permit, but had hoped that between the limited time we plan on staying in Panama and the backwater nature of this port that the officials would let me off, as I understand the permit costs a couple hundred dollars. The guy in the office couldn't tell me how much the permit would cost as he had to get authorization from somebody higher up. I filled out an application and was told to return to the office at 2 pm tomorrow to pick up my permit; we'll know the damage then. I don't feel too bad about paying for the permit, as most of the outlying islands are part of national parks and are protected and preserved partly for their touristic value. If cruising permit fees help with preserving natural areas, I'm all for them.