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.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Isla Parida: UFO, Bang In the Night, Pilotage

Here I continue to try and bring the blog up to date, as we lie anchored on a pleasant Sunday morning off tiny Isla Gamez. I'm still a few days behind...

It was raining when we left Gofito for Isla Parida on Tuesday afternoon. The good thing about rain here is that it usually brings with it wind. Unfortunately, the wind is often short-lived and fickle, so we found ourselves hoisting sails and turning of the engines but only sailing for minutes before we had to douse sails and turn the engines back on. So we ended up motoring through the afternoon and until midnight, when we were able to sail downwind under the Code 0 for an hour or so.

During the night we encountered a suspicious, mysterious Unidentified Floating Object. At around 8 pm, Renee woke me up very concerned about what she had observed out on the water. She wouldn't wake me up if it wasn't something serious, so I sprung out of bed quickly to find out what was up, shaking off the fog of sleep as quickly as I could. Renee explained that she had been tracking a very big bright red light to port and then, suddenly, the light went out. She was worried that the vessel went into dark, stealth mode because it intended to intercept us with evil intent. I asked her what happened to the vessel on the radar? She said it never showed up on radar. I began to wonder and question what she was telling me and scanned the radar at multiple ranges with the gain turned up to maximize sensitivity. A vessel with a big bright red light would normally turn up on radar; at the distance Renee reported the light, we would normally be able to pick up a small open panga fishin
g boat on radar if we looked carefully enough. I satisfied myself we were in no immediate danger and went back to sleep wondering what the hell Renee had seen... or, very unlikely, but perhaps she was fatigued and imagined it all?

I came on watch at 9 pm and settled into the relatively boring job of watching the instruments, plotter and radar, squinting into the darkness all around the boat from time to time as the boat motored along under autopilot. A little after 10 pm I was surprised to see a big bright green light appear out of nowhere a few miles behind us! Renee's UFO had reappeared! I immediately turned to the radar to identify it as a target, but the UFO didn't show up at all, even though the radar clearly showed the two fishing boats further away. And then the big bright green light went out and we never saw it or the red light again. I wonder what it was? A warship wth a cloaking device, messing around with us with it's lights? A tiny fishing boat with really really big lights? Who knows?

My next watch started at 0300 as we continued to motor along through the night. Renee's midnight watch had been uneventful and she got into bed and fell asleep quickly. About a half hour into my watch I was shocked alert by a loud, solid bang from an impact to the port hull that shook the whole boat. It was a big enough hit that I immediately grabbed the portable searchlight to inspect the outside of the hull for damage and then went below to check the bilge for water. Thankfully, no damage and no water. I then directed the searchlight astern and saw that we had hit a large log, about 10 feet long and a foot or more in diameter. We've seen a lot of branches, logs and other debris in these waters during the day. There are a lot of rivers in Panama, it is rainy season, the tides are strong so a lot of stuff gets swept out into the coastal waters. During the day, you can dodge this flotsam. During the night you leave it to chance, because you typically can't see a thing and the
odds are greatly in your favor because there is much much more clear water than there is water occupied by debris that can cause damage. But after sailing thousands of miles at night never hitting anything, we were due to hit something. Fortunately it just scared the hell out of me, but didn't do any damage. I was surprised it didn't wake Renee up, so I poked my head down below and announced, "Well, we just hit a big log, but we're okay." Renee didn't stir, she was so sound asleep.

Around 5 am, the wind piped up, I unfurled the Code 0 and started a delightful sail into the dawn light ahead of us in the East. The light, clouds, ocean and quiet without the engine running was so peaceful and beautiful that I told Renee she could sleep in and didn't have to get up for her 0600 watch. Isla Parida was only 10 miles away, so we would be making our final approach into the anchorage in a couple of hours.

We had chosen Ensenada del Varadero at the southeast corner of Isla Parida as our destination anchorage. There are a lot of small islands and rocks, submerged and visible, scattered around the approach to the anchorage and the charts are not very detailed and often not accurate. So we had to proceed very carefully, using multiple means and resources for navigation. I focused on the electronic chart and the boat's GPS position and heading. Renee focused on the detailed chart in (the excellent) Bauhaus cruising guide and estimated our position visually and by transferring GPS latitude and longitude to the paper chart. We compared observations as we went along and slowed or stopped the boat when we didn't agree or were uncertain.

The colors of the foliage and shores of the outlying small islands and the main island are the same, so visually, the profile of the land blended together, often making the small islands invisible until the boat reached a viewpoint where the separation between main island became visible. This sometimes made visual pilotage tricky. The charted locations of rocks was a bit off in some cases, but at half-tide it was easy to see the surface disturbance of the water around and above submerged rocks. Our vigilance and piloting skills served us well and we entered into the anchorage with no problems at all, dropping anchor just after 9 a.m.

Ensenada del Vardero is a beautiful little cove lined with dark sand beaches, palm trees and jungle vegetation. There are several thatched huts on shore and we saw a person on the beach near one every once in a while. Looking out from the cove, you see lots of small pretty islands against a backdrop of cloudy blue sky. The water changes color from green, to blue, to steel grey depending on the sky above. To our grateful surprise, we found that no mosquitos made it out to the boat, even though we weren't anchored very far off the shore. We picked a good place for our first stop in Panama.

Next, another boat problem, security concerns, in-the-water boat maintenance and more at Isla Parida.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Golfito: Birds, Death, Stealth, Leak, and Up the Mast Again

I'm continuing to bring blog posts up to date with this one, chronicling our passage from Bahia Ballena to Golfito and the day and half spent there.

Golfito is about 150 nm southeast of Bahia Ballena. We raised anchor at 0530 so that we would arrive in Golfito before noon to give us time to purchase fuel and some chain and a padlock to serve as a temporary solution to our broken sliding door lock.

It was raining when we departed but started to clear up around 0700 and didn't rain the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, there was very little wind and when there was any, it was at too tight an angle ahead of us, so we had to run the engines the whole way. There were a couple of hours when we were able to grab a bit of the wind with the jib to take a little load of the motor to save fuel.

I rarely get seasick and hadn't since sailing down the Baja coast almost a year ago, but I guess four months of living on land had its effects. I felt pretty green around the gills until early afternoon, but then rapidly improved. Hopefully that's it for another year. Renee also got seasick, a bit worse and for longer than I. Hopefully she's "cured" now, too.

In the afternoon, two pretty little land birds landed on the boat, holding tight to the mainsheet with their little feet. I don't know why they were so far from land, as we were a good ten miles or more offshore. What became apparent, however, was that they were not able to fly back. Every time they tried, a flock of vicious sea birds would chase them mercilessly until they returned to take refuge on the boat. They finally gave up, exhausted, and decided to sail with us. They tried to find places to get out of the cool, damp air, including flying into the salon and roosting on the nav station and setee. I was fine with having birds inside the boat, but Renee was less enthused. The birds weren't really comfortable with being in a small enclosed space with humans coming in and out anyway, so potential conflict among the crew regarding animal accommodations was avoided. Eventually, one bird huddled in a narrow gap between the battery locker and cabin bulkhead, the other just hun
kered down on the sole of the cockpit, looking quite cold and miserable. I felt sorry for it, so made it a little nest in a cardboard box. I felt better, but the bird didn't like the box at first, but eventually exhaustion got the better of it and it settled down.

Renee, the two birds and I sailed through the night uneventfully. The stars shown bright and beautiful between the clouds in the sky. It was peaceful and Renee and I eased into the rhythm of our night watch schedule, 3 hours on, 3 hours off, from dusk to dawn.

The rising of the sun got the birds energized. The one in the box decided to take off and try to fly to land. Give the distance we were from land and the bird's physical condition, I doubt it made it. But who knows? The other bird left its gap and sat morosely on the stern seat, not moving much, tired, cold and hungry. We later found it dead in another narrow gap. Sad, but nature's way.

We arrived at the fuel dock in Golfito at 1100 and filled the tanks with diesel. It was an somewhat inauspicious and unsettling arrival as the police were examining the body of a murder victim in the mangroves next to the fuel dock. We didn't stay long.

We anchored in front of a place called Land & Sea, a small "clubhouse" run by Tim (Sea) and Katie (Land) that caters to cruisers and land travelers visiting Golfito. They have a dinghy dock, cold $2 beer, WIFI and lots of local knowledge. All for $8/day. Katie gave us the scoop on the grocery stores (we realized we skimped on provisions and needed to supplement) and the hardware store. Renee took off shopping while I took care of "business" over the Internet, paying bills and other necessary administrative tasks.

We had to keep a very low profile while in Golfito, as we had officially checked out of Costa Rica and the boat isn't officially allowed to re-enter for 90 days. We figured if anyone asked we would say we made an unplanned stop due to mechanical problems. We were illegal aliens with a unpermitted boat.

Before launching the dinghy to get to shore, I drove a wooden bung into the drain hole to replace the stolen plug. It fit really tightly and seemed like it would keep water out. It didn't. When we returned to Intermezzo after a lousy dinner, the winch strained again to hoist the dinghy. I pulled out the bung and a good quantity of water streamed out. So much for the bung idea. We needed to fix this problem and Golfito has the last well-stocked hardware store we might see for a couple weeks or more. So, rather than leave that evening as we had planned, so as to avoid potential problems with the authorities, we decided to stay the night and go back to the hardware store in the morning to buy parts to make a new plug.

We bought our parts the next morning and headed back to the boat. Our next destination, Isla Parida in Panama, is a 75 nm sail from Golfito, about 15 hours. So as to not arrive in the dark, we couldn't leave Golfito any earlier than about 2 pm.

We had a few hours to kill and the anchorage was calm so I decided to try climbing the mast again. Oh, what a difference no swell makes! I made it to the top of the mast with no problem. I tackled the wind sensor first. Sealant had failed and was letting moisture get to the plug connector, so I took it apart, cleaned it and put it together again with new sealant. Next, replacing the anchor light bulb with an LED. No luck; the fixture housing was frozen and I couldn't budge it to open it up, even using a strap wrench. Not sure what I'm going to do about that; maybe an oil filter wrench of the right size will do the trick. Next time. Finally, I set to changing out the main halyard. Unfortunately, I screwed up with the line Renee and I were using to haul things up and down from my perch at the top of the mast and got it all tangled up in the rigging. The sky was clouding up rapidly and I could hear thunder in the distance. I didn't have time to untangle the haul line and replace
the halyard without risking getting zapped, giving the police another dead body to examine and becoming an entry into that "Darwin" book of stories about people doing stupid things that kill them. So down I climbed; one hit, two outs. The mast repair saga will continue.

We departed Golfito at 1400 as the thunderstorm was building above us and rain was beginning to fall. I'm writing this from Isla Parida, so obviously we made it. But not without sighting a UFO (Unidentified Floating Object) and another more startling surprise in the night. Stay tuned for the next installment...

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Boat Maintenance and the Art of Zen

It's Wednesday evening and we're sailing from Golfito, Costa Rica to Isla Parida, Panama. I haven't written a blog post for a few days because I have been feeling, shall we say, "challenged" by things wrong on the boat. I'm going to start getting up to date with posts on this passage.

We stayed in Bahia Ballena to get as many repairs done as we could, especially the wind instrument at the top of the mast. To make my climb up efficient, I figured on also replacing the anchor light bulb with an LED and replacing the main halyard while I was up here. We got everything ready and I started climbing the mast with our ATN mast climbing rig, basically a bosun's chair and foot straps attached to ascenders. You move the foot ascender up, stand up to take weight off the chair, slide the chair ascender up, sit down, move the foot ascender up, etc....climbing up a static line alongside the mast like an inch worm.

Well, the swells in the anchorage didn't seem at all significant while standing on the boat, but as I went up the mast, trigonometry worked against me, amplifying the rolling motion of the boat and swinging me violently from side to side unless I held on to something. Tough going. By the time I was half way up, I was having a really hard time operating the ascenders while at the same time stopping myself from bashing into the rigging. I looked up to the top of the mast and realized that it was going to be impossible to work on the delicate wind sensor, unscrew the masthead light fixture and fiddle with the halyard all at the very top. I decided to abort the mission and started to descend. Going down was even harder than going up as the swells had increased.

I felt pretty frustrated from my failure to get the work done at the top of the mast, but I had plenty of things to do back at sea level. When I used the main head that morning, it failed to perform its job properly. So I recommissioned the guest head in the port hull. Like the main head, the guest hadn't liked sitting unused for four months and its joker valve, which prevents wastewater from flowing back into the toilet, wasn't doing its job properly, either. And the watermaker was still leaking from the carbon filter housing. Plus when I dug into the locker below the aft port berth, I found a small puddle of fresh water at the bottom, source unknown. Oh, yeah, and earlier that morning we determined that the broken lock on the sliding door is not repairable without spare parts from its Italian manufacturer. So, I set to work repairing the two toilets, while brainstorming on how to stop the leak from the watermaker. Investigating the puddle in the locker could wait, as could
figuring out how to procure the spare parts for the door lock. The toilet repairs went smoothly and were successful, for which I was grateful and rewarded myself with a cold beer, after thoroughly washing my hands. At least the day wasn't a complete loss.

We had a surprise visitor first thing in the morning while we were contemplating the day's repair work. When I got up in the morning, I looked over the two other boats in the anchorage. The lines of one of them looked familiar and I remarked, "That looks like George's boat", while thinking that there was no chance of that being true. George is the heavy drinker I had befriended back in Bahia del Sol, El Salvador way back in April. No way could he now be in the small Bahia Ballena anchorage in Costa Rica at the same time we were. Well, I thought wrong. Along came George puttering up to Intermezzo in his dinghy. We greeted each other with smiles of amazement, although George seemed less amazed than we were. After 25 years of sailing all over the world, I guess this has happened once or twice to him in the past. I myself was astounded. And happy to see him. He is a very friendly, helpful and mellow guy.

After we caught up on each others' comings and goings since April, George invited us over to his boat, Thalina, in the evening for a homemade pizza dinner, accompanied by "rum and yellow shit", plus whatever we wanted to bring. We told George we would bring salad and beer, the latter a hedge against the risk of rum and yellow shit not going so well with pizza.

When evening came and it was time to head over to George's for dinner, I went to unlock and lower the dinghy . After my mast climbing failure and working on the boat all day, I was more than a little peeved to discover that the padlock securing the dinghy to its davits had frozen up. We tried penetrating oil, banging it with a hammer, spinning the combination wheels, but no luck as the our scheduled six o'clock departure for dinner on Thalina came and went. I had purchased the best quality padlock I could find in Mexico and so it was immune to sawing with a hacksaw and the hasp too thick for my small bolt cutters. I could have got the evil angle grinder out and fired up, but that would take a lot of digging around and setting up. So I regretfully cut the swaged loop of the expensive stainless steel security cable with the hacksaw, feeling at about my wits' end with respect to dealing with the boat.

The cable cut, we lowered the dinghy. At this point I wouldn't have been surprised if it didn't immediately sink, but it didn't. So, for sure I figured that the outboard wouldn't start and, if it did, it would immediately catch fire, but it did and didn't. My spirits lightened from pitch black to a murky gloom and the prospect of having a stiff rum and yellow shit when we arrived at Thalina seemed far more attractive than it did earlier in the day.

We motored over to George's and apologized for being so late, explaining our troubles. George, who has lived on a boat for 25 years accepted it all as a normal day afloat and said he was glad we were late because his yeast hadn't proofed and the pizza dough still needed a little time to rise. This delay seemed to afford the opportunity for him to have had one or two additional rums and yellow shits. I looked at the concoction he was drinking and decided I'd start with a beer.

George baked two pizzas and they were delicious, one topped with sliced hot dog (which I would normally find disgusting), the other with tuna (which I would always find delicious). The rum and yellow shit (lemon Tang, it turns out) was drinkable and I somehow downed two of them. Certainly not the healthiest of meals, but very enjoyable and we enjoyed George's friendship and company in Thalina's comfortable, well-travelled salon.

When it came time to go, we bid George goodnight and returned to Intermezzo. When I went to raise the dinghy back up on its davits, the winch seemed to really strain lifting it. As the dinghy slowly rose out of the water, I saw a stream of water shooting out the hole that drains the interstitial space between the dinghy's hull and floor. Not good, the extra weight of the water causing the strain on the winch. It turns out that somebody pinched (British English for "stole") the drain plug over the summer while Intermezzo was resting at Puerto Azul. Add another thing to fix to the list. Fuck.

I really struggled with keeping an even mental keel through the day, often not very successfully. I tried to breathe through my frustrations and disappointments, tried to just accept them as they are, tried to accept that I have little control over things, tried to keep perspective that all this was happening on nice boat in a beautiful place, that many, many people have much bigger problems than a missing dingy plug. When I was successful, I felt reasonably calm and able to face the challenges. When I wasn't, I felt angry, snapped at Renee and wanted to throw in the towel on sailing completely. I was not at my best this day and was not a pleasant person to be around for myself or Renee.

The next morning I received a text message from a good friend with words of encouragement which helped start me off with a better frame of mind than the day before. The swell in the anchorage seemed less than yesterday's, so we decided to attempt the masttop repairs again. My second attempt at climbing the mast started off better, but by the time I was up to the spreaders, the swell had increased and the boat had swung on its anchor so that it was beam on to the waves. I started being thrown from side to side again, but persevered and climbed upwards another ten feet or so, continually using one hand to stabilize myself. Looking up at the top of the mast, I realized that there would be nothing to hang onto up there and that, again, making repairs would be impossible. So I inch-wormed my way back down to the deck, another wasted effort climbing in the hot tropical sun.

I maintained better spirits through the rest of the day as Renee and I tried to stop the watermaker from leaking (but only slowed it down) and tackled other items on the to do list. We were leaving Bahia Ballena early the next morning to sail for Golfito, so I went to bed early, not in a good mood, but not as feeling as despondent as I did the night before.

Enough for now. It's early Thursday morning, we're now in Panamanian waters and approaching Isla Parida under sail in peaceful conditions. Time to enjoy the moment.

I'll cover our passage to Golfito in the next blog post.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Bahia Ballena: Sailing, Lightning and Repairs

Intermezzo left Puntarenas this afternoon and sailed to Bahia Ballena near the entrance to the Golfo de Nicoya. We received a warm send off from the dock by the marina guys after a busy morning returning the rental car, cashing in my Costa Rica colones for US dollars, closing out the marina account and getting the boat ready for sailing. It felt really good to feel Intermezzo moving through the water and to leave the dirty waters of the the Puntarenas estuary. Puerto Azul is a good value marina with really friendly and service-oriented staff, but Puntarenas wouldn't be on my Top 10 list of places to visit in Costa Rica

As it seems more often than not, the wind was blowing right from the direction we wanted to sail at 10-15 knots. We left the dock later than planned, so we couldn't afford the time it would take to tack upwind the 25 nm to Bahia Ballena, but I decided to hoist the sails anyway, just for fun. We sailed for little while, but then had to turn the engines on and motor sail in order to get anchored before dark (which we didn't).

Thunderclouds were building above the land around us all afternoon. Around 3 pm the clouds had massed, lightning was flashing, rain was falling and the whole mess was moving towards us. It all caught up with us and we had to manage the 20-30 knots winds in the rain, which definitely cools one off quickly. I ended up in light foul weather gear with a thin fleece shirt on underneath, hard to believe after a week of sweltering in just shorts.

Most impressive though was the lightning. This coast, from here south to Panama, has one of the highest frequencies of lightning strikes in the world. That was evident this afternoon as we watched bolt after bolt of lightning hit the sea and surrounding land. These vertical bolts were in addition to the many horizontal bolts of cloud-to-cloud lightning in the sky. Fortunately, all the sea strikes were quite a distance away from us; it would have been pretty scary if they were striking close to the boat. I can see why my insurance deductible is doubled for damage caused by lightning. While still a statistically remote possibility, the chance of getting hit by lightning here seems to be many times greater than normal.

The efficacy of lightning protection systems for boats is highly debatable, but the current conclusion from some reputable experts is that they don't really make a difference and if you are going to get hit, you are going to get hit. So we take some basic precautions just in case during lightning storms, like avoiding touching metal, staying inside the cabin or at least under the hardtop outside and using the oven as a Faraday cage to protect our portable electronics.

Unfortunately, our wind instrument (displays wind direction and speed) started displaying erratic and erroneous information during today's sail. It seems like a bad connection between the display and sensor at the top of the mast. We can sail without this instrument, but it is easier and safer to sail a catamaran "by the numbers" rather than by feel. Unlike monohulls which heel over and provide physical feedback when you sail, the stable, level platform of a catamaran can lull you into being over canvased, which puts a lot of stress on the mast and rigging. I really want to try and fix this instrument if I can.

So, we'll stay anchored here in Bahia Ballena tomorrow to see if we can fix the wind instrument and get a bunch of other items on the prep and repair list taking care of, like un-pickling the watermaker, replacing incandescent navigation light bulbs with power-saving LEDs, pump up the slightly flaccid dinghy, check the engines over, fix the sliding door lock and replace the terribly twisted main halyard with a nice new one. We have a lot of miles to sail coming up and I'd like everything to be ship-shape before we depart.

It is nice to be sailing again but, honestly, having to repair things are that were working fine when I left in June after just six hours of sailing is a bit discouraging. Especially when one of those items is 63 feet in the air.

Oh well, I just need to accept that it's all just part of the experience and the way the universe unfolded beyond my control today.