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.