Archive for December, 2006

Merry Christmas

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

We happened to check our GPS date and only then realized that Christmas is already upon us! Not terribly optimistic that Santa would be able to track us down here, we laid our tevas out in the cockpit just in case.

We’re still anchored off Coiba, this time in the anchorage we abandoned yesterday due to the northern squall (today’s northern squall was not nearly as fierce as yesterday’s but there has been a lot more lightening; Joshua’s hair was standing on end earlier). We heard voices in the dark and went above to see a fishing panga anchored maybe a half mile from us (we could only see it when the lightening flashed). You are not supposed to fish in the national park so who knows what they are up to aside from trying to get some peace and quiet on Christmas eve.

ps – We’re getting low on veggies and had for Christmas Eve dinner Battle Expired Anchovy Recipe #2. Luckily, a Sangiovese de Toscana is doing its part, keeping the scurvy at bay. We should be in full fighting form by the time we hit Panama City.

Santini’s Panga

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

Pangas on the Rio Lempa, El Salvador

Rio Lempa, El Salvador.

Isla Coiba

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

After two still nights and two action-packed days in and around northern eastern Coiba and Rancherita, we sailed around the northern end of the island to check out the western side. For the first night we pulled into Playa Rosario just as the wind was dying. It has been our experience over the last two weeks that the wind usually dies at night; however, this time a freaky chop kicked up out of nowhere the moment it grew dark. With no wind to accompany it, we twirled aimlessly on our anchor rode while bouncing madly every time we moved perpendicular to the chop. Lying in bed, wide awake, it sounded as if our rudder would fall to pieces as it thrashed back and forth. To make matters more exciting, we had a bit of coral under one position of our anchor swing and as we passed over it, a loud crackling would echo ominously through the boat. Needless to say, neither of us got much sleep. The next morning brought us glaring to the surface of the cabin to eyeball this freakish chop in person; we pulled anchor before even the coffee pot was on to boil and got the hell out of there.

Destination Ensenada Hermosa; a modest trip of a mere nine miles. It took us almost four hours because the wind was so finicky that we had a hard time keeping the sails open in that ungodly chop. Once inside the bay, the swell reduced somewhat and after we anchored in the lee of the point, we prudently set a stern anchor just in case. Then we paddled ashore to check out the river and the long playa hermosa. There used to be a penal camp here (what the difference is between a penal camp and a penal colony—which is what the box on our map on the other side of the island is labeled—I don’t know). We read that once upon a time, in the ’80s, some hapless cruisers anchored in this very cove and alighted upon the beach in search of high adventure and possibly some coconuts. Unfortunately, some penal campers, disillusioned with their current situation on the western, choppy side of a remote tropical island, saw fit to commandeer the sailing vessel for their very own (after dispatching of the owners) and make due speed for the mainland. This is how bad reputations are born. Nowadays, the penal colonies (and camp) are no more. We couldn’t even find it (we didn’t try too hard).

Sadly, our river excursion was cut short by a too-low-tide and several crocodiles, one as long as our kayak, which freaked me right out. (Being in an inflatable kayak does little to fill one with confidence in the face of rough-skinned, pointy-toothed beasties.) So we pulled the kayak back up onto the bank and headed off down the beach. The beach was just a beach mostly except that it was littered with a fascinating array of debris. Naturally, with the net tonnage of the Time Machine—not to mention the vast amount of unused space—in mind, we were sure to collect a variety of ungainly stuff to weigh down the boat (a foam float for our anchor, an assortment of plastic lids to hopefully replace damaged ones—but then we can’t get rid of the ones that don’t work because: littering!, lots of cool seed pods, like fifty coconuts, etc.) By the time the tide was back up, it was nearing dark and so we just headed back to the boat where we were happy to have the stern anchor set because sure enough, a tight chop was coming right into the bay from seemingly nowhere.

And again, we had a hell of a night. Bouncing all over the place; this time we had the boat facing mostly into the chop but the up and down motion of the stern was a little nauseating (that’s where our bunk is). It rained too; when the rain began, it was pitch black night. We could hear it thick pounding the water first on one side, then the other, then in back, etc. yet very little was hitting the boat, only a few random splatters. It felt like we were on some movie set with a less-than-masterful artificial rain handler. Finally he got it right and once the rain hit our boat it poured steadily for hours. We filled all our tanks.

First thing the following morning, we set out early for Isla Jicaron, which everyone has said was amazing, beautiful, do not miss. Wind was very light yet there was still this most obnoxious chop except this time, up inside the bay, it was coming up against the outgoing tidal current. The scene was ugly. Waves lunged up from all directions and made little splishies at the peaks and with no wind and a motor that prefers to work in flat calm, it took us over an hour to go the mile or two we needed to get beyond the mayhem. I was highly irritated with the whole scene, especially since I spent the majority of the day seasick after just that morning. Listening to our motor race and cavitate as it pulls free from the water makes my hair stand on end. As we neared Jicaron a squally wind kicked up from the west, making the only anchorage showing on our guide totally ugly. We sailed around the corner to see if it would be possible to anchor on the western side of Jicaron, but no: rocks everywhere and a swell. Oh well, we decided that if we were lucky, we could make it back up around the bottom of Coiba where our book showed a lee anchorage north of Boca Grande. We sailed very fast on the front of the squall with our gennaker up, but that lasted all of twenty minutes. Okay, then we motored until we hit the next poof, killed the motor, then sailed, then motored. Back and forth. Very, very annoying. The southern end of Coiba was pretty though with a spectacular point comprised of a series of rocky arches jutting out into the water; I was happy to have seen it at least. Took some photos from the moving boat.

Finally the wind died utterly and we were motoring again, checking the time every ten minutes to see if we would make it to our anchorage before the sun went down. Everything was looking promising but then a squall popped up from the north, which meant that our proposed anchorage would be terrible. The seas went from flat glass to a massive frothing herd of white cats in no time at all. After consulting our charts, we decided to try to nudge up into a different spot a few miles further where the wind chop would be shortened by the northern point of Bahia las Damas.

We tacked back and forth north into the corner of Bahia de las Damas to where we were out of the worst of it and set the stern anchor. It was maybe twenty minutes after sunset and we still had a little light. After the storms past, we had a very quiet night. Finally.


Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Thanks to a random comment over eight months ago that our friend Jessica Avila made regarding our little boat trip, I have had the ‘80s Van Halen hit, ‘Panama,’ stuck in my head nearly 60 percent of my waking moments in this country. If we ever make it to Perth, she will pay, pay, pay. In a way I suppose, it helps to keep the sheer awesomeness of the place in check.

A person could spend a lot of time here. Every anchorage we nip into for the night–just for a rest and we’ll be off first thing next morning—has a view of at least three other golden gleaming beaches lined with coconut palms that look like they might be worth a little exploring. Also, I’m not sure if it’s just not the season or whatever, but there are hardly any people. It’s hard to feel like we have to keep moving on.

We arrived at the national park Isla Coiba the night before last and anchored in a cove on the eastern side of Coibita/Rancherita. The main island used to be a penal colony until the environmentalists stepped in and all our outdated guides say things like: “Be sure to keep a 24-hour watch on deck at any of the outlying islands,” “Get a guard with a large gun to escort you on hikes,” “Do not pick up anyone floating in crudely constructed rafts begging for help,” or “We have personally seen escaped inmates on this [outlying] island.” (We have been told that Isla Rancherita is now home to a Smithsonian Research station and the penal colony is no more.) The cove is densely jungly with no human structures or debris in sight; it also has great sandy holding (many of our anchorages have been steep with a lot of coral debris mixed with the sand).

Yesterday morning we awoke to Billy and Paul duking it out on channel 16. Billy, the captain of the sportfisher “Typhoon” was supposed to go get live bait for a little fishing party and the fish weren’t biting, “There are NO fish out here; not even Pesca Panama is catching anything” (I find that hard to believe, but…) and Paul, the organizer/redneck was not pleased. We could watch out of our cove as the Typhoon charged all over the place burning up fuel and looking for bonito, and we could hear Paul drawling at the radio, his irritation coming through in careful enunciation if not always complete sentences, “So, let me get this straight. There is NO live bait at all anywhere?” (Again Billy assured him there was none in several different ways.) “Cause I got fifteen people here and we’re just sittin’ here pickin’ our butts.” (An oft-used expression.) “If you can’t get any live bait I guess we’ll have to just take ‘em snorkeling.” (Pronounced with considerable distaste.) This went on for over an hour until Paul went snorkeling with the tourists and chatter was replace by the incessant rapid-fire hailing between the ranger station on Coiba and “TRESTRESTRES!!!” and we decided to head over there ourselves to get checked in.

We eschewed snorkeling for land lubbing (actually, a small cruise ship called Sea Voyager had about thirty people paddling around Granito de Oro, rumored to be the good snorkeling spot in the area) and anchored off what might have been Donald Trump’s yacht, the R.M. Elegant. (I thought time and time again about starting a gallery of horrors featuring yacht names and photos of some of the beasts we see on our travels but have not when time after time, we meet some really nice couple on some Morgan called ‘Tide N Knots.’) Anyway, this R.M. Elegant is one of the uglier things we’ve ever seen, it looked like it cost a zillion dollars and probably looked a hell of a lot snazzier on a piece of paper laid out on the design table. There were jet skis and various satellite craft whirring all around it like fleas and we were pleased when they left shortly after our freaky-looking little sailboat dropped the hook. Not much later the cruise ship charged off too, leaving the entire area free of craft aside from ours.

After a chaperoned hike around Isla Rancherita (we had no choice) we decided to ride the last of the wind back over to the quiet little cove for the night. But it died. And there was a gnarly current (which was ferocious enough to actually see on the surface of the water). And the motor wouldn’t start (water in the fuel, dagnabit). For a while it was a bit dicey when we were actually sailing backwards (outrageous!) and down onto an ugly looking reef. We eked away on a puff of wind here and there and tacked, slowly, about in the dying wind. The water was almost to the silver sheer stage and we were getting nervous. Finally we lost the wind altogether and as I locked the helm in the straight position, Joshua got one of the kayak paddles, straddled one of the amas and started rowing; I joined him on the other side and damn if we didn’t make at least two knots. Impressive. We got another puff here and there and made it into our anchorage right as the sun went over the hill. We dumped buckets of water over our heads to cool off, then sat in the cockpit and drank pink rums.

The next morning we were booked for snorkeling, after we, er, Joshua, fixed the motor (carburetor full of water, requiring disassembly and many, many swear words). We ate egg tacos en route and anchored in an aqua section off the tiny rocky outcropping Granito de Oro. I keep hearing about the crystal clear water and I have never seen it. Here was, again, someplace where the water was supposed to be superb. It was okay. The coral was cool though, when you got close enough to it. We dropped into the water right onto about six turtles! They are much cooler when viewed from under the water and look like they are flying when they swim. They were all giving us the eye. Highlights included a wider variety of different corals than I’ve seen previously, many pairs of moorish idols, clouds of sergeant majors, various velvety damselfish, a school of barracuda (which, they weren’t big but there were like fifty of them), and then (gasp) SHARKS! Well, three of them, and well, white-tipped reef sharks, and well, we saw them only one at a time so it wasn’t really that dramatic. Joshua came over to me as I was happily regarding some sort of inanimate bumpy mushroom coral thing and grabbed my wrist telling me when we surfaced: “there are sharks, but they are harmless reef sharks.” I was actually more interested to see them than I was freaked out by the fact that the words “shark” and “harmless” were just used in the same sentence. They are really very pretty and move about in a fluttery manner (with all those fins), and they are rather small (thankfully); plus, they kept mostly to the bottom. I don’t know how well I’d react if I saw anything larger swimming in that side-to-side sharky way at me on the surface of the water. Du-duh… du-duh…

After swimming around the island twice, we had to swim the back out to the boat against the current. It took forever. By the time we made it I was tired and had to pee badly (I read somewhere long ago that sharks are attracted by the smell of blood and, yes, urine in the water and I have refrained from peeing even in lakes and rivers ever since). Plus I was wearing a body suit I tried out for the first time; I seem to always get jellyfish stings which cause an icky rash and sunburns even after laying on the greasy SPF30 thick (it used to belong to Sundi—Hey Sundi! I have your wet suit thing if you need it. You have to come and visit us to get it though). It worked quite well even if I nearly fell overboard as I was staggering around trying to get it off. It’s black with all sorts of 80s-looking neon stripes. I feel like I look really cool in it.

We are currently anchored on the northwest side of the island and are planning to search for a waterfall in the manana. With any luck we will not have to endure a friendly Panamanian park ranger as a tour guide making sure we don’t fall off a cliff or whatever the hell it is they think we gringos are capable of and will have the benefit of a freshwater bath to boot.

Bus to Rivas

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Colorful bus. San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua (photo by Jeff). Of course, we aren’t anywhere near Nicaragua this is just to add some color.

Cheyenne Weil, Joshua Coxwell