Archive for October, 2006

Bahia Culebra

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

We’ve been just hanging around here for the past few days. It has been raining every day off and on and the last three days have been very wet. Yesterday it was raining before we got up and didn’t stop until around 10pm, when it suddenly cleared up and stars shone. Today seems to be clearer so hopefully things will dry out a little (like our laundry).

We crossed the bay to Mata de Caña and dinghied over to a neat beach nearby.

Coatis. Bahia Culebra, Costa Rica

Coatis, we think. There were several of them, including two babies, walking along the rocks. Then they climbed up into the trees and watched us.

Pelican. Bahia Culebra, Costa Rica

Pelicans. I still find it amusing to see these huge birds hanging out in jungle trees.

Hermit Crab. Bahia Culebra, Costa Rica

Hermit crab.

Hermit Crab Ring. Bahia Culebra, Costa Rica

Hermit Crab Art Jewelry.

Bahia Santa Elena to El Coco

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

Searunner 31 anchored in Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Pulling into Santa Elena after the trip down the coast from El Salvador was like pulling into some kind of primordial jungle. A storm was fussing around overhead and the sky turning blue and black; a mist was descending down the valleys of the mountains. Dense jungle covered the steep hills surrounding the bay and Tarzan vines hung down over the reflective water. The jungle trees were of many different varieties so the hills looked like a mosaic of different leaf textures and shades of deep green. Pelicans sat in the trees only 100 feet from where we dropped anchor, and macaws, ospreys, vultures, egrets, and herons, among others flew around. We could hear bird calls from all around us—particularly the macaws and ospreys; ospreys have a sweet and delicate cry whereas macaws natter ceaselessly like a gaggle of toothless old chain-smokers. There are no towns nearby and the only road that comes near the bay is a rough dirt track with weeds growing up in the middle.

A couple hours before we managed to catch an enormous sierra and I set out immediately to turn a portion of it into ceviche while Joshua and Jeff wandered around the boat putting things away and looking at the scenery. As we pulled in, we were surprised to see our friends from Lotus—the ones who entered the bar of Bahia del Sol the same day we did, infamously running aground. When the ceviche was ready, Jerry and Joni rowed over with beer and rum and we had a ceviche and Santa Elena party. They had also only just arrived, a few hours before us.

Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica

[View of the bay from our hike.]

The next day we moved the boat to the other side of the bay to anchor near a clearing that led to the dirt road. We had heard from another cruiser in Nicaragua that one can follow the road past three washes, then turn up the wash to find a waterfall with a glittering freshwater pool for swimming. We set out in pursuit, not without a little apprehension on my part after having heard stories about the proliferation of poisonous snakes in the region. Of the two people I know who have visited the bay, both reported very close encounters with the dreaded fer-de-lance, a snake that is large (aren’t they all), highly territorial, and deadly poisonous. An uncomfortable combination of characteristics, in my opinion and I dug my hiking boots out of deep storage for the occasion. Not knowing which direction the three washes were, we guessed and turned right, walking for a few kilometers before passing three very obvious large washes yet countless smaller, could-possibly-be-construed-as-washes washes. Jeff gave up and wandered back toward the dinghy and Joshua and I decided to wander up one of them for a little ways to see if it panned out. None of the washes we had passed had any sign of recent water in them, but after a half kilometer or so up this one, water just appeared and ran down the streambed—more of the modest trickle variety, not exactly a waterfall—and a few hundred meters farther, it disappeared leaving the wash once more a bed of dry rocks and debris. We followed it a little more and then gave up; maybe we were supposed to go left at the road. Who knows. We never saw a fer-de-lance, thank god, but we did see lots of birds, some crawdads (in the bit of stream), and a land tortoise. On our way back across the bay to re-anchor in the lee of the hills it started to rain, a soft steady rain, much like, as Jerry described it, the drizzle in the Pacific Northwest.

We wanted to check out the snorkeling near the mouth of the bay so we decided to pull anchor and move the boat with the idea that it would be more fun and easier to snorkel off the boat with the three of us then it would be from the dinghy. On the way we swung by Lotus to pick up Jerry and Joni. In the middle of the little inlet between ‘Tooth rock’ and land, we anchored in maybe fifteen feet of water over sand. Although you could see the bottom from the boat, when you were in the water with a snorkel, it was fairly murky with minimal visibility. We mostly just snorkeled to shore, dodging jellyfish, to check out the beach. Joni saw monkeys and we all hobbled over the rocks to see but only were able to catch a glimpse. They were not howlers, but rather some limby, long-tailed variety, and surprisingly large. It was the first time we really had a good beachcombing beach in forever and after a few hours, we had collected enough rocks and shell fragments to sink the boat. We headed back inside the bay and rafted up to Lotus to drink refrigerated beer and hang out after our hard day strolling around in the sun. It is funny to be on someone else’s boat with your own boat just a step away. I kept saying things like, “Oh, I’ll have to bring such-and-such over sometime to show you,” then realizing that I could just go get it right that moment. The power.

Searunner 31 Felicity 40 raft up. Lotus and Time Machine. Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica

[The raft-up.]

The cruiser who sent us all across the bay and up that third wash in search of a phantom waterfall had also mentioned that the ‘town’ over in the neighboring Bahia Cuajiniquil had a good grocery store where you could get ice, etc. We were dangerously low on limes after the ceviche and so we headed over to check it out. So far, every day at Santa Elena, it had started to rain late in the day; always a soft steady rain with little wind associated. By the time we anchored and rowed ashore at the town, it started to rain and by the time we got groceries and back to the boat, we were tired and thoroughly wet. There was no wind and we took off back towards Santa Elena motoring. Lucky for us, Joshua had picked up some mini tetra-paks of rompope drink and we set about making some spiked “egg nogs” for the return trip.

flor de cana and rompope in a tetra pack

[The carnage.]

*   *    *

After a few days we headed for points south. We irritatingly had wind right on the nose the entire day and a menacing dark sky behind us, probably sucking up the wind we were seeing. We kept thinking it was going to get us but it just sort of spread out everywhere but in front of us and we stayed relatively dry. Going around Punta Blanca, our chart was a little vague. There appeared to be one isolated submerged rock a half mile out and Joshua and Jeff figured we’d just go inside. As we headed around the point the depth sounder suddenly jumped from a depth of around 150 feet to 70 feet, then less and less. I had a flash to that part in Star Wars where the Death Star is pulling in the Millennium Falcon with the tractor beam and Obi Wan says, “Turn the ship around” and everyone else is looking like, “Yes, I think you’re right.” Jeff at the helm steered hard over and we slooooowly skidded around back the way we came, all of us staring hard at the depth sounder, which pretty much went berserk. At the last moment we saw it read 3.6 feet below the keel. Perhaps we were only reading our own bubbles… All of nursing our own personal heart attacks, we rounded the point an hour later at probably two miles off and in no less than 250 feet. Once we got around Cabo Santa Elena, the wind was out of the West and so we anchored in the lee of the gorgeous Islas Murcielagos, which look like they could be in Ireland, or maybe Northern Scotland or something—not that I’ve ever seen either place.

butterfly, Costa Rica

[This innocent leaf was discovered licking the salt off our trampoline as we were heading out of Santa Elena.]

Islas Murcielagos, Costa Rica

[What did I tell you; Ireland, right?]

The only bad thing about anchoring at Islas Murcielagos is the anchorage is wide open to the papagayo wind direction with a couple of miles of fetch. If a strong papagayo did kick up, it would be very difficult to get out of the anchorage. It was dead calm when we went to sleep, but at around 3am, I popped awake when the wind changed. I’m good at that, waking up when conditions change; one of the few instances where my neurotic nature works well with the sailing life. I poked Joshua awake and within a half hour, when it was clear the wind was not just a random poof from the wrong direction, we pulled anchor and bashed our way out towards the opposite side of the little bay where the wind chop would be less severe. By the time it got light, we decided to just head on south since we had the wind for it (and could see where we were going) and moved on to Bahia Potrero Grande, more famously known as “Ollie’s Point,” one of the better surf spots in Costa Rica and home to a profusion of caimans, or alligators (crocodiles?).

Anchored, we scouted around for hungry caimans and seeing none, Jeff and I rowed ashore in the kayak while Joshua swam with the boogie board. Once ashore, Jeff promptly armed himself with a stout caiman stick and we poked along the beach picking up shells and seedpods and various debris with which to clutter up the boat. While no caimans or caiman tracks were ever spotted, we did see several turtle nests, a couple of them were clearly created only the night before. Sadly, there were also coyote tracks everywhere and one of the fresh nests had already been utterly raided—leathery broken turtle eggs, the insides still wet, were all over the place.

The Ollie’s Point break was really nice—even to a non-surfer like me—it folded perfectly over and then kept curling for a long time as it followed down the beach. Joshua headed out to surf for a bit. As he bobbed around waiting for a good set, two pangas came roaring into the bay and unloaded five surfers apiece; it turns out they came from El Coco and had paid $200 for the panga to come surf Ollie’s Point. Now that it was crowded, we headed back to the boat and out to cross the Gulfo de Papagayo.

The gulf is somewhat notorious in that the papagayo winds can be insanely strong and are hard to predict. Previously I had imagined it like a baby Tehuantepec, where you keep ‘one foot on the beach’ and zing across from one safe spot to the other. However, the winds affect a far wider region than just the Gulfo de Papagayo, which is only a few miles across. We had likely been experiencing papagayo winds since the northern border of Nicaragua (those strong offshore winds). This time we had a steady onshore wind coming from the southwest and we cut straight across the gulf with no problems. We arrived and anchored in Bahia Huevos right as the sun set.

Sunset. Bahia Huevos, Costa Rica

Shells. Bahia Huevos, Costa Rica

[The loot.]

Beach. Bahia Huevos, Costa Rica

We could hear howler monkeys from the anchorage, although we could not locate them with the binoculars from the boat.

Mangroves. Bahia Huevos, Costa Rica

At the head of Bahia Huevos is an estuary. The three of us motored the dinghy up at high tide and then drifted back down. We saw a lot of birds and I think some coatis, a sort of raccoon-like animal with a long snout, but again, no caimans.

Bird. Bahia Huevos, Costa Rica

[Some cool birds that make a loud honking sound.]

The next day we headed around the corner into Bahia Culebra (bay of snakes!) to wait for Monday, when the Port Captain’s office in El Coco would be open.

Bitchin Sierra Ceviche

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

Joshua seemed to remember in Mexico hearing that sierra was an excellent fish for ceviche. I don’t know why, but I was skeptical about whitefish in ceviche after having some rather chewy snapper once; previously, I had only had tuna ceviche, or else various shellfish.

At any rate, we had caught a modest-sized sierra directly after we hung a left from Bahia del Sol and still had a bit left over after a day or so. Joshua used the remainder for a ceviche snack and damn was it good. Those Mexicans weren’t kidding; sierra is indeed a perfect ceviche fish. We all but inhaled the batch and pined for more.

Sierra mackerel

More. Caught right around the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It can be clearly seen that this fish is about the size of Joshua’s leg, in spite of the reckless camera angle. He carefully filleted the thing to produce nearly an entire one-gallon freezer ziplock full of fish meat.

With eight pounds of fresh sierra, we could make a truckload of ceviche.


* Eight pounds of FRESH sierra. No, really, you don’t need that much. But it’s a mighty powerful feeling to have it, I tell you.
* Onion, finely diced; at least, I like to finely dice things.
* Tomato, finely diced.
* Garlic, finely diced.
* Green pepper, sliced into ¾-inch long juliennes. (For the hell of it.)
* Jalapeno, finely minced. Of course, El Salvador does not deal in vegetables that contain any perceptible spice so sadly, this ingredient was absent for our Santa Elena ceviche.
* Avocado, chopped into reasonably sized chunks.
* Lime juice (I don’t need to mention that this needs to be fresh.)
* Vinegar, we used sherry vinegar; red wine vinegar would be good too.
* Water.
* Salt
* Spices if you want: pepper or a bit of cumin.
* Cilantro for garnish. I sadly didn’t have any.

The moment the anchor was down I was in the galley happily waving knives at our veggies. I tend to prefer a lot of vegetables in things so I minced a healthy amount of onions, tomatoes, garlic, and peppers; save the avocado for last. I chucked about a quarter of a teaspoon of salt into the blend as well. (Also, I seem to remember reading someplace that one isn’t supposed to use metal bowls or metal utensils when preparing acidic things like ceviche.)

Sierra Ceviche

Somehow the photo-taking process broke down after I got the veggies chopped so this is the last illustration. At any rate, here’s a lovely shot of freshly diced veggies shown against an exotic backdrop of authentic Costa Rican jungle.

Then, I called Joshua down to deal with the raw meat part of the deal. He carefully sharpened the knife (because sharp knives are a joy to use) and sliced a reasonable amount of fish into half-inch cubes (bigger pieces would take longer to cook and we were hungry).

Now to add the acids that will ‘cook’ the fish and mellow the onion/garlicy parts; basically, you want enough liquid to just cover the lot. The ratio we have found to taste best is roughly one quarter lime juice, one quarter vinegar, and half water. Mix this around and let it stand for around fifteen or twenty minutes (or however long it takes to cook the fish). Once the fish is cooked, taste it and adjust your flavors, adding more salt if necessary, pepper or cumin if you want, or more fresh lime juice. If it tastes a little too piquant, you could add a tiny bit of sugar to mellow it out a bit; we only need to do this if we went overboard on the lime juice or vinegar. Now add the chopped avocado, carefully mixing it into the ceviche so it doesn’t disintegrate. If cilantro kept worth a damn, I would have minced a bit to sprinkle on top.

We ate it on crackers with a dab of Marie Sharp’s habanera hot sauce. Cold beer, of course, goes brilliantly with this.

Playa El Coco, Part II

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

We ended up bringing the boat back to the dreaded El Coco anchorage anyway the next day. Because Jeff needed to get his stamp still from the Immigration lady and we needed groceries and gasoline for the boat, we figured we may as well deposit Jeff and his baggage at the El Coco bus station and get all our business done in one trip. Jeff double and triple bagged all of his belongings inside his duffel bag and I sat in the front of the dinghy with them held high during the landing. We had good timing, plus it was early in the morning when the swells are not as rough, and we only got a little water in the boat.

We arrived at the Immigration office around 9am or so and the lady seemed truly surprised to see us. I told her hello and that we brought the father this time. She smiled and was actually extremely friendly. She stamped Jeff’s passport with yesterday’s date and sent us on our way saying, “I’m pleased to serve you!” We kept telling Jeff, “She wasn’t like this yesterday, really. She was SURLY!”

We ate some breakfast, saw Jeff off on the bus to Liberia, did a lot of walking back and forth trying to figure out our plan of action (groceries, gas, ice, both? Laundry?), and finally headed off to the grocery store. The El Coco grocery store is really well stocked and has a lot of imported products, probably due to the large expat community (or gringo time-share owners). The prices are a bit on the high side—we were told by a local boat guy that groceries in Liberia are cheaper—but we didn’t want to deal with a bus ride to buy only a few things and then we proceeded to fill a cart with almost more than we could carry. The wine and booze selection is particularly elaborate although by this point we were trying to limit our load and there is a French bakery right in the store—a good one too, in my starved-for-baked-goods opinion. The first day we visited I agonized over the quiche loraine or the raisin bun (those flat spirally things with the raisins and custard) and went with the raisin. This day the choice was between the quiche and a ham and cheese croissant, so we got both. The croissant didn’t survive more than ten feet out the door of the store; it was so good—buttery and the cheese was Gruyere or something (i.e., fancy cheese). Since it contained easily seven thousand calories, we wrapped the quiche up in the now oil-soaked paper baggy for later.

We lugged all our stuff back to the dinghy on the beach and regarded the surf conditions: bad. Ugly and bad. And noisy. The tide was maybe two hours before low tide and there were about thirty surfers a hundred meters down the way by the reef bobbing in the waves. We had prudently brought a plastic bin to put stuff we didn’t want splashed in and we set about filling it with all the imprudent things we thought we were going to dinghy-surf back to the boat, like paper towels and toilet paper. We put the lid on and placed the bin squarely in the center of the Porta-bote. The remaining bags of groceries we tied up to one of the seats to keep them more or less upright if we did any bouncing around. We decided that ice and beer would have to wait for the second trip (we had to come back for the laundry anyway) and pushed the bote down to the water.

I removed my shorts and put them on the seat to keep them from getting totally salted and we sat and sat waiting for a break in the waves. Finally Joshua decided we had one and started in with “go go go!” while I whimpered “no! wait!” but pushed the boat out anyway because I always say that. Joshua jumped in to start rowing and while I continued pushing the stern out until I was thigh-deep or so. Joshua started shouting “get in! get in!” and rowed madly into the swell; then the swell broke and water poured into the bow. This swell pushed us back toward shore a bit too and I could see a large set of swells coming in. Joshua kept rowing out and we took a second and a third into the boat; me bailing as fast as possible. Now Joshua was trying to turn us around to go back to shore but another swell broke right on us as we were turned broadside, nearly flipping the bote and swamping it completely. We were in the water by now and pulled it as far as we could back onto the beach, which really wasn’t very far because it now weighed a ton with all the water. We were both sandy and drenched and I was still kneeling at the stern bailing like madman as each wave crashed into us, filling the boat again.

This is when we noticed that the transom was cracked, right in half. Either it cracked when we nearly flipped or it cracked as a result of the waves that were coming in bashed into it. Then we noticed that all our bags of groceries were bobbing all over the place and the plastic “splash-resistant” bin was floating on its side in the middle of the bote. We carried all these up the beach a bit and then went back to remove the cracked transom. We didn’t know how we were going to get the bote it up the beach at this point; we couldn’t budge it at all with all the water inside and we couldn’t empty it because every other wave or so that came in filled it with water. One of the surfers came over and asked if he could help. Between the three of us, we were able to lift the bow a little so that water poured out of the floppy part of the stern, then drag it a little further up the beach. Joshua bailed the remainder of the water out while I scooped the sand out with my hands.

We pulled the dinghy up to dry sand and tried to figure out what to do. The groceries were totally drenched and the plastic bin was full of water. Our earlier plan to make two trips—one to ferry groceries to the boat and the other to fetch beer, ice, and laundry—was dismissed as crazy talk and Joshua took off to get our laundry. I set out to dump the water and reorganize the grocery situation and then I realized I still was in my underwear, so I rinsed the sand out of my shorts in the surf and put them back on.

I put the broken bote back together as Joshua returned with a large garbage bag containing our laundry; now we could get our clean laundry drenched too. Excellent. After assessing the grocery damage, we discovered one soaked roll of paper towels and other than a squashed avocado, only a little bit of one roll of toilet paper got wet. Everything else we bought was pretty much impervious to salt water. We moved the remaining paper products to the laundry bag, repacked our poor abused bin, and Joshua started tying up everything with all sorts of fancy sailor knots.

By this time, one of the local guys who seemed to hang out on the beach came over to see what was up and help. He was an older guy with a beard and we distractedly chatted with him about the surf exit. We turned the boat around, pointed it back at the waves and pushed it down a little to watch for a lull. And we watched for a lull for a long time. So long that the guy finally abandoned us and wandered off. We turned the boat around and pulled it back up the beach again. I had to go find someplace to pee or else I’d die and we just weren’t ready to face the waves yet. I went to find a bathroom and get a couple of beers (the last we’d have for a while since our ice and beer plan was totally shot) and left Joshua standing, staring at the ocean.

When I returned, Joshua had waded out into the breakers to see how deep it actually was and declared that they mostly break only at about waist level—so, if we could just push the bote beyond this point, and very very quickly, it should be fine. Two of us in the water could probably do this quickly enough but then getting back into the pitching bote might be too hard to do in a hurry so it was decided that one of us had to jump in earlier and paddle while the other continued to push it out. Once the rower was beyond the breakers, the pusher would swim out and climb up into the boat as well. I was to be the rower and Joshua the pusher/swimmer.

After we finished the beers, we turned the bote around and pulled it down to the water. I really didn’t think that the surf had mellowed out and was not feeling very optimistic. I actually could feel my chest pounding at times, I was so nervous. Since we were only in toe-deep water, we had to pull the bote in farther. Then waited some more, watching as the pangas anchored out beyond the breakers bobbed up and disappeared down in the swell. We pulled the bote farther again—as far as we could before just having to go for it. I kept saying, “No, not now, look at how huge that one coming is!” And Joshua kept saying, “We have to go sometime, we just have to go.”

Finally after two gnarly waves brought in a lot of water and floated the boat high, Joshua started pulling the boat out. We were going now and I started in with the “Oh shit, oh crap, oh shit, oh crap” and began yanking on the bote; at about thigh-high water I vaulted in. Grabbing a paddle (I didn’t have time to set up the oarlocks) I frantically paddled on one side then the other, Joshua pushing from behind. The swells were beginning to get bigger again and I started to swear loudly. “They won’t break—just keep going, and keep it straight.” Joshua was shouting from behind because he couldn’t push me anymore. The boat bobbed up steeply over a swell, which didn’t break or else I would have totally freaked out, and then did it again with another steep one. I popped the oars in the oarlocks and inexpertly rowed like a crazy person out out out until Joshua started shouting at me again, “STOP! Wait for me! You’re OK!” It seems I had totally left him behind and he was swimming, trying to catch up with me in the water. Honestly, I had a hard time stopping and the swell felt insane even though it wasn’t breaking. We didn’t get a drop of water in the bote at all, aside from what dripped off Joshua when he climbed in. I was shaking terribly and needed the row out to the boat to calm myself down.

Once back at the Time Machine, we rinsed the sand off of ourselves, then unpacked, rinsed, and dried all our groceries. At the bottom of the bin, we found the quiche loraine. We had forgotten about it completely and there it was, un-squashed and still wrapped in the oil-soaked bag. The crust was perhaps not exactly flaky anymore but no worse really than any several-hour old quiche that hadn’t been dunked in the ocean. We discovered we were starved and ate it for dinner.

Broken porta-bote transom

Playa El Coco, Costa Rica

[Assessing the damage.]

Playa El Coco, Part I

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

We spent our first official day in Costa Rica in El Coco wandering the streets in the rain, being sure to drench those parts that may not have been entirely soaked during the surf landing. We had to check into the country, even though we’d already been kicking around Costa Rica (and even had, gasp, gone ashore once or twice) for the last week, easy. The port captain’s office was simple enough to find except there was a padlock on the gate leading to the front door. We wandered over to some police dudes loitering around the entrance of what probably was the police station and asked where the Port Captain was, explaining our predicament with concerned faces—that we want to check in, but… The policeman said it must be a holiday and to try again mañana, then he assured us that it was fine for us to be ashore in the country even though we had not yet legally entered since he saw us and decided we looked nice. Well, OKAY. We headed out on our various secondary missions of the day: ice, beer, internet, and cowboy hats (not necessarily in that order, well, ice and beer were definitely first-ish).

By the time we got back to the boat, an offshore wind had kicked up some icky chop and between this and the largish swell coming straight into the anchorage (El Coco offers no protection; nor, incidentally, do it offer coconuts), I felt queasy within an hour just sitting on the boat at anchor. We decided to head back around the corner into Bahia Culebra (Playa Panama) where we could anchor in a more protected spot and there spent a peaceful, if rainy, night.

The next morning, Joshua and I rowed ashore at Playa Panama to take a bus over the hill to Coco to do the check in, even though everyone was totally against this idea and I had only suggested it in passing and I’m a terrible, terrible person. Sheesh. Anyway, we began by having to wait a hundred years for the bus, which was late, and then it didn’t even go all the way to town but dropped us at a crossroad. Then it started to pour and, since a connecting bus was not forthcoming, we walked on a narrow road with no shoulder the three kilometers to town ourselves. The bus passed us right as we entered town and we were totally soaked and covered with mud spatters—basically looking and feeling our best for the Port Captain.

Outside the office (happily not padlocked this time) a few pieces of soggy cardboard had been placed thoughtfully at the door in hopes of keeping people like us from mucking up the office. We went in and requested to enter the country with our boat. The first question out of the secretary’s mouth was, “Is your boat anchored here?” And we of course had to say, “Well, nooooo…” She was instantly irritated and informed us that it had to be anchored in the El Coco anchorage to be checked in, then she harrumphed and asked to see the three copies of our title, two copies apiece of the passports, and one copy of the previous country zarpe. We didn’t have copies of anything and it was very clear that this was not acceptable at all. Through all this I sheepishly explained that we had been anchored in El Coco yesterday and tried to come check in but the office was closed and we talked to the policeman and the anchorage was impossible with the large swell so we moved the boat to Playa Panama. But of course we were happy to bring the boat back as soon as we could to get everything done properly. And of course we will make copies of everything, no problem. And I smiled nicely and did my best to look properly repentant for not having the copies ahead of time, and I tried to ignore Joshua’s Look of Doom. And I pretended like the secretary was not freaking out that we didn’t even have the boat with us nor did we have the necessary copies but that she was simply informing us that this was what was necessary for us to get things going. And that somehow seemed to work. She just sort of stopped being all bent out of shape, called in the Port Captain and explained the situation in a normal tone of voice.

The Port Captain was a very Port Captainy-looking guy, an older, slightly overweight dude with a mustache. He could furrow his eyebrows and look stern, or raise them to look nice and grandfatherly. He started out with the stern when she got to the part about the boat not being here (this was, of course, right at the beginning) but then turned grandfatherly as I embellished the story with how I was getting seasick with the huge swell in the anchorage but that we would be happy to move the boat back to El Coco ASAP if that would make things better. We would leave right this moment to do it, in fact. The Port Captain conferred with the secretary for a bit and then went back to his office. She told us that we needed to bring the boat back around and do it by 2pm. This was utterly impossible since it was pushing noon and it had taken us all morning to get to El Coco; to come around the point with the boat would take another two hours, if there was no swell/choppiness (which there would be) and wind (which there wouldn’t be). I carefully explained this and emphasized that we would absolutely move it first thing in the morning (when the sea is mellower) and be standing on her soggy cardboard when they opened the next day. No. Not possible. Her position seemed to be that this was a border and we had to be cleared before we could set one foot further into the country and never mind that with a little date-checking, it was highly likely we had been somewhere in Costa Rica for over a week. A little of the former exasperation returned, thereby cuing my sheepish and repentant expression, but she again talked to the Port Captain, trying to figure out how the hell they would deal with this highly abnormal situation.

The fact was, they were going to process our entry today, even if it killed several adorable kittens, and they had to figure out how to organize things with the Customs guy, who actually had to drive over from the airport in Liberia (maybe 30 miles away) to inspect our vessel. Which wasn’t even in town. The Port Captain got on the phone with the Customs guy, fully explaining the entire situation including the bit about me feeling seasick from the “muy feo” anchorage. The Customs guy still had to come and we would have to figure things out when he arrived; if it was still raining, it was likely that he wouldn’t even want to go out to inspect the boat at all. We all hoped for rain and the secretary sent us down the street for the requisite copies.

Upon return with the copies, paperwork got cheerily processed by the Port Captain who asked us all sorts of questions about this and that. The secretary sort of hovered around making sure he didn’t break the fax machine when he tried to use it or that he used the right phone to make calls. He then sent us down the street to the Immigration lady, who we needed to appear before at 1pm because she was currently on her lunch break. The Customs guy was due at the Port Captain’s office at 2:30, but best to return at 2:15.

We walked into the Immigration office and handed over our papers to the lady and she was all set to just process us as normal when she was derailed by a phone call from the Port Captain. It was maybe 1:05 and the Customs guy was ALREADY there! And were we checked in yet? And there was another issue of extreme importance, which was they needed to confirm the ‘manga’ and the ‘calado.’ She asked me about these and I had to say I didn’t know those words—what was a ‘manga?’ She put the phone down and paced about a little saying, “manga, manga, how can you not know what manga is,” and to the couple of guys who were fussing over a computer box they had just been dust-gunning out on the porch she said, “What is manga in English?” They answered her with blank stares that indicated they didn’t even know what ‘manga’ meant in Spanish and went back to the computer. She picked up the phone where the Port Captain was still giving her an earful about how the Customs guy was waiting and this manga thing and called me back behind her counter, thrusting the phone at me, “You talk to them.”

Once on the phone, a thing that generally terrifies me when trying to speak a foreign language, I was able to figure out that manga* meant ‘ancho’ or width; calado as it turned out was draft. Evidently the Port Captain was going over our paperwork with the Customs guy and the fact that a 32-foot long sailboat had an 18-foot width yet only weighed three tons was not adding up. I explained that the boat was a trimaran and that cleared everything up; the Port Captain laughed and said, “OOOhhhhh!!” and the Customs guy in the background said, “Trimaran!” Back to the Immigration lady, who was standing in front of me with her arms folded. I returned to my position at the counter while the Port Captain told her another five or six times to hurry up and get us processed so that the Customs guy wouldn’t have to wait or whatever and she finally hung up, glaring at us.

We handed her three passports, including Joshua’s dad’s, who elected to stay with the boat in order to keep the sea snakes from hijacking our dinghy. She quickly did the math and asked where the third person was. We explained that he was Joshua’s father and was on the boat and she was not pleased. “He has to be here PERSONALLY to be checked in.” Okay! We said, we’ll have him here first thing in the morning. But no, not possible she said; her office would be open until 4pm and if we did not produce this father, well, dot dot dot. Here we had to explain about the rough anchorage and the boat being in Playa Panama and not in El Coco and the seasickness and all the rest. Very put out at this point, she gave us the immigration forms to fill out, “Hurry! The Customs guy is already waiting!” We handed them back to her and she went to go call us in—and she called in all three of us. Whoever it was she called us into made her wait for seven minutes (rolled eyes; pointed glances at the wall clock) to get back to her with the ‘okay—we weren’t wanted by Interpol’ or whatever verification she needed and she stamped our passport photocopies for the Port Captain (basically, she fudged it a bit and cleared Jeff as well) and then Joshua’s and my passports. “Jeff Coxwell has to come in personally!” she repeated, and did not stamp his passport. We said first thing tomorrow was the best we could do and is this okay, but she only snorted and stomped back to her desk. We went straight back to the Port Captain.

And the Customs guy was nowhere to be seen. The Port Captain said he would return in one little moment and just wait here. And we waited and waited and he and the secretary kept sort of peeking out at us and finally the Port Captain got on the phone to call the Custom guy’s cell to tell him that we were waiting. Again he told us that it would be very soon. Customs finally pulled up at 2:30.

The Customs guy was young and smartly dressed with pressed Levis and had not only driven over from Liberia, but had someone else driving him altogether; he didn’t seem at all concerned that the boat was not at the El Coco anchorage. We got in the car and headed back to the boat while the Customs guy gave the driver a hard time about his driving. We wondered if he really intended to go out to our boat, since he would have to negotiate the dinghy launch through possible surf to see it; I had already mentioned that it was a rowboat and not some fancy motor dinghy. I also casually mentioned how wet you can get launching a dinghy through the surf (ha ha). Playa Panama is nowhere near as bad as El Coco, but still, we typically strip down to our underwear to keep our clothes from getting soaked. As we arrived and walked out to the beach, a particularly large set of swells broke one after another. The Customs guy watched these and then looked out to the boat. “Is that the boat?” “Yes it is, the dinghy is about 100 meters down the beach,” we replied. “Yeah, I’m not going to go out there.” And with that, he shook our hands, handed us the completed paperwork and went back to his car.

* We later looked the word up and discovered that ‘manga’ means ‘sleeve,’ ‘cloth strainer,’ or, in nautical terms, ‘beam.’

Cheyenne Weil, Joshua Coxwell