Archive for March, 2007

Upwind Beat to Providencia

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

We ran dark the first night out of Portobelo, not because we were worried about piracy (the area through which we were traveling was not a problem spot) but because our ten-year old batteries are pretty much crap. We maintained a night-long neurotic head swivel and the moment we spotted a ship’s running lights on the horizon, we snapped on our own nav light. Once the ship passed the light went right back off. We hoped we wouldn’t run into any other sailors with dying batteries.

The passage started out fairly rough, with stacked up wind waves interspersed with large weird blobby waves that piled up from the surrounding wavelets. These were steep and pointy and when we went over them, my stomach fell and the spice jars rattled around. It never ceases to amaze me that the boat just stays on top of that stuff, but I guess it is common knowledge that boats float and I really ought be used to it by now. By late afternoon, the winds calmed to a pleasant 12 knots and the seas miraculously followed and were mild enough to allow Joshua to cook something. We saw zillions of flying fish, tiny little blue guys that would erupt out of the waves in a swarm, gliding in all directions before the boat. I also saw my first Portuguese Man-O-War, a creature that looks more like a child’s toy than a dangerous stinging jellyfish. It resembles a clear plastic inflated empanada with a fluted purple-pink sail. We saw maybe seven or eight individuals on the trip to Providencia.

Centerboard Trunk

[Looking down the centerboard trunk at the water below the boat; the Caribbean is an amazing blue-violet color.]

We saw very few ships for our route, which passed directly in front of Colon and the Caribbean Panama Canal. Early the second morning, before the sun rose, I spotted a ship on my watch and flipped on the running lights. I took a bearing to see what direction it was running towards us: 70 degrees. A few minutes later I took another bearing and it hadn’t moved perceptibly. I became more neurotic and took bearings every 30 seconds—always the same. What this suggests is that the ship is on a collision course and would eventually come bashing into our boat unless something changes. Once the ship lights were clearly visible and it was still at 70 degrees, I woke Joshua up to check things out. We kept up on our course while trying to decide what to do: attempt to hail the ship, change our own course and hope the ship continues on its course, wait to see if the ship changes course on its own. We were just getting ready to tack when I noticed that the ship abruptly began to turn (I didn’t know they could turn so fast). It passed behind us, Joshua went back to bed, and I turned the nav lights back off.

It was Joshua’s birthday and when I woke from a nap, he had hauled aboard a large wahoo! It was again sort of rough and so he quickly hacked off a chunk to make some wahoo fried rice for breakfast. Wahoo is a very tasty fish it turns out and we had heard that they are supposed to be prime sport fish because they put up a fight, a sort of creepy concept. (Ours didn’t fight much since it took us a while to even notice that we had caught him.)

Towards the evening that day, we saw a ship again heading for us on a collision course (son-of-a-bitch!). It was a large white thing and Joshua thought it might be Coast Guard (possibly had a orange stripe on the side). I thought we might tack and pass behind it when it abruptly changed course and increased speed so that it was running directly for us, bow bashing into the large waves. I was reminded of the only other time I had any experience with US Coast Guard. We were kayaking around off the beach in Marina Del Rey and this large (well, 30 feet maybe, which is large enough to a kayaker) power boat charged us. We started waving our kayak paddles and I was trying to unfasten my life jacket in preparation to flip the kayak and dive deep to go under the propellers when the boat ran us down but at the last moment, it came about in a circle and just rocked us with a monster wake. As we looked after it we saw it was the Coast Guard, evidently just playing around; I was pretty upset. Joshua began to hail the white ship on the radio as I stood steering and freaking out in the cockpit. There was no answer and Joshua tried a second time. They seemed to be getting really close and were moving very fast. Finally they responded and identified themselves as the US Coast Guard. When the ship was very close to us, they abruptly turned, went behind us, and began to follow our boat. They asked for our boat registration numbers, our names, dates of birth, SSNs, home ports, destination, and where we were coming from. They told us to maintain course and speed. We did and waited. Finally they said that they were going to board us and conduct a “Code 41” check but were just waiting for the ‘OK’ from their boss. At this point, the sun was setting and it was growing dark. We said ‘okay’ and asked what 41 meant; they said it was a routine safety check to see if we had all required safety equipment aboard, check expiry dates of our flares, and to be sure we were operating safely out here in the Caribbean.

Threatened by the United States Coast Guard USCG

I wanted to reef because the wind was strong and gusty and the sea always feels worse when you can’t see it coming but we figured we should just maintain course and speed like the USCG told us and not do anything odd. The ship loomed over us and there were a number of people standing around on deck next to a very large cannon. I started taking bearings on the cannon to be sure they didn’t aim it at us.

The whole thing took around four hours. By the time they finally departed, we were exhausted, hungry, our watch schedule was all messed up, and we were worried that we would now not make it into Providencia before nightfall the following evening. After radioing at us repeatedly to “maintain speed and course,” they managed to deploy a large black inflatable, called “Sharkbite,” populated by large black-clad Americans sporting sidearms and bulletproof vests. It took them about thirty minutes to figure out how to board a pitching 32-foot sailboat in the dark, in heaving 8′ seas, underway at 6 knots, which is to say, we finally had to heave-to to get them aboard. Three came aboard, not gracefully, and did a preliminary inspection (checked to see how much water was in our bilge) “just to be sure that your boat is safe for our fourth crew-member uh Officer uh Parker and us to be aboard.” Uh Officer uh Parker miraculously turned out to be human and she was introduced as the ship’s artist charged with the task of sketching the interior of our little boat. The story was that they had never seen a trimaran before and the Coast Guard didn’t know anything about trimarans and it was so lucky that they spotted us out here and wouldn’t this be a great learning experience for everyone. A bizarre story, at best, but it wasn’t like we had a choice in the matter. It took them all of five minutes to do the Code 41 safety inspection, where they wrote down the expiry dates on our flares and noted how many life jackets we had aboard. Then they took three hours to go over our boat with a fine-toothed comb all the while reveling in the fantastic opportunity it was to be aboard a 70’s era trimaran; “space accountability” they put it when radioing back to the big ship. Sometime during the measurements, Officer Parker emerged from below and puked onto our ama. Then Officer Murphy went forward with the camera and blinded us all with the intense flash until she ran out of batteries making sure she got pictures of every single thing in our boat—she even took photos of the books on our bookshelves. She had to take pictures of the aft cabin by flashlight after that. Then they did some “ion” testing, which means they rubbed some special pieces of paper all over all the surfaces of the boat to be sent via dinghy back to the big white mothership, another death-defying maneuver during which Officer Murphy nearly fell overboard in the moments when she wasn’t in danger of having her arm amputated by the inflatable squeaking up against our hull. Murphy safely back in the overcrowded cockpit, they all stayed aboard making small talk while we waited to find out if we had any unsafe or expired narcotics aboard. There was much radio chatter during all this, most of which was in code, “Sharkbite’s got the IS and will RV with the OHS.” “COPY!” “How’s the RS?” “RS negative!” “COPY!” Etc. It all ended very abruptly when we got the call over the radio: “Officer Terry, you are One Hundred percent done with your safety check.” The de-barking procedure went fairly smoothly, that is to say it was at least in keeping with a level of safety I’ve come to expect from our Coast Guard friends: this time it was Officer Terry who nearly went overboard as one of the guys in the inflatable winced with obvious strain trying to steady the inflatable against our boat while we rocked about in the large waves.

“We don’t normally do this but…” Officer Terry handed us a plastic bag with a couple of Coast Guard T-shirts and everyone smiled and wished Joshua a happy birthday, then they bashed off into the night.

It was 9:30 pm and we ate some crackers before I went to bed. Joshua said that they continued to follow us for a couple hours before disappearing over the horizon. By the time I came on watch, the nav lights were back off and the night was pleasant.

We approached the island in the afternoon the following day and kept a few-mile distance as we skirted the surrounding reefs (our Providencia chart boasts a survey date of 1835). The island is mountainous with dry grasses and sparse trees here, green jungly foliage there, and palm trees along the water’s edge. The beaches are white and the waters calm around the island since they are mediated by the barrier reef. The Caribbean has a tidal change of around one foot only.

Isla Providencia, Colombia

Once we were anchored, we radioed ashore to Mr. Bush, the man in charge of getting visiting vessels checked into Colombia; he and his crew turned out to be the friendliest and most expedient port/immigration authorities we have ever encountered. Afterwards, we sat in the cockpit gazing off at the lights onshore and the stars overhead. We made an elaborate cooked dinner featuring wahoo. We sipped wine and took out the Coast Guard T-shirts for a better look.

T-Shirt. USCG Thetis. Key West Florida

Not exactly my style but I sure as hell will be wearing mine the next time we get boarded for a routine safety check.


Friday, March 16th, 2007

We arrived in Isla Providencia at about 4:30 PM. We were hoping to arrive earlier but got delayed last night by the USCG. We’ll tell that story later, but overall it was a great sail and we have just been checked in by the nicest port authority and immigration people ever. Welcome to Colombia!


Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

Doniris. Portobelo, Panama

Portobelo, Panamá

Exit Panama

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

We’ve been waiting on a weather window for a north passage to Isla Providencia and it seems to have presented itself. We checked out of the country yesterday, which is an odd thing really, to be smack in the middle of a country yet legally, not there. There must be a word to describe this situation but I don’t know it; I would imagine that such a term might involve modifiers like “in-situ” or prefixes like “non.” Checking out was pretty easy but it was clear that the immigration lady was looking for something wrong with our paperwork to hassle us over. Unfortunately Nina, from BIKA, was not as lucky as us and immigration latched onto something vaguely anomalous in her passport; she got “charged” a nudge-wink-mordida to have it “overlooked.”

We will hopefully leave in the morning and BIKA might be leaving in the same direction as well. With any luck, we will also meet up with Velella again, who we haven’t seen since Huatulco, Mexico. The trip is 280 miles approximately and so it should take us around three or four days. If we are lucky, the wind will stay under 20 knots and come around more to the east so we won’t have to beat to weather the entire way.

And maybe we will catch a lovely tuna and it won’t be too rough to clean/eat it.

The Crazy Frenchman of Portobelo

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

anchorage at portobelo panama

“You see that boat with the sails up? Don’t anchor near him; he’s crazy!” This was shouted at us from a small power yacht as we tacked up into the diminutive Portobelo bay, weaving in and out among the anchored boats while we selected a good place to settle.

We had noticed the boat with the sails up; it stood out with both the main and mizzen fully hoisted and we had already discussed ourselves dry of all possible explanations as to why this might be since he was clearly at anchor. We weren’t actually in any danger of anchoring near him anyway since we had chosen the quieter, northern side of the bay near the ruined fort but I guess the excitement spawned by recent events had everyone in the bay anxious and excitable. We wrote off Mr. Warning Man as just another cruiser zealot stricken with that annoying habit of needing to disperse advice to whoever is within earshot.

crazy french dudes boat. Amel 53. Portobelo, Panama

There were around 40 boats anchored in the Portobelo bay, which is to say, big city time after the deserted bend of the Rio Chagres we enjoyed the past few days. Smack in the middle of the bay was a 150-foot private power yacht, “Triton,” complete with fleet of matching white kayaks, a pair of lime-green jet skis, a red helicopter seated on a small landing pad aft of the bridge, and a handful of pert uniformed crew. After we ate dinner, we sat in the cockpit finishing a bottle of wine and enjoying the quiet night and full moon.

Around 7:30pm or so, someone’s voice came on the VHF cruiser hailing channel, “Attention the fleet, attention the fleet: The Frenchman is on the move!” Well, this was certainly an odd announcement. Frenchman? It didn’t take long for a chorus of clarification to ring out over the VHF, echoed around the bay from as the boats turned their radio volumes way up so they could go out on deck to watch. “Attention the fleet! Attention the fleet!” (A phrase that always amuses me although I have to admit, with 40 boats in one anchorage, ‘fleet’ is somewhat apt.) “The crazy man with the sails up has weighed anchor and is sailing through the anchorage!” (Now we figure out what’s going on—this is the guy the power boat was warning us about.) “Everyone, I suggest standing watch to see what he does because he already set two boats on fire.” (He what?!) Panache, one of the boats evidently set on fire seizes this opportunity to pipe up, “Yes, he is, um, mentally unstable and set my boat on fire yesterday.” (Whoa.) “Twice!”

By now we are passing the binoculars around and have the hand-held VHF turned on as well so we can eavesdrop on conversations taken off-channel. We can see that the boat with the sails up is moving through the anchorage at a speed of maybe one knot, sometimes less than that—there is very little wind this evening. Behind his sailboat by about two boat-lengths trail a couple of dinghies from very long painters. There is a blizzard of VHF static and chatter and as we scan the anchorage, everyone on a boat is standing out on deck watching the Frenchman with their binoculars. It’s all very exciting.

The Frenchman emerges from the southern cluster of boats and points his sailboat slowly for the north side, towards Triton. A clear voice rings out from the hand-held, “Large Power Yacht Anchored in Portobelo, Large Power Yacht Anchored in Portobelo, please be advised that there is a mentally unstable man headed in your direction!” A flurry of clarification follows: “I think they are called Triton.” “I think they monitor 16.” Then an audible click as every single boat in the anchorage changes their VHF channel to 16 to eavesdrop. Triton is successfully hailed. “Thank you very much Captain, we are on top of the situation,” comes the crisp reply. It now looks like the Frenchman is going to ram the big yacht. At a full 1 knot of speed. We can hear him shouting obscenities in French and sometimes English: “Ahss-hull!” We can see uniformed crewmembers running up and down stairs on Triton.

A minute or so later, he actually does ram the yacht. We hear intensified shouting and two flare-gun or small pistol shots. We see the boat pushed off the yacht and it slowly moves away from Triton as the yelling continues. There is more VHF activity and Panache is back on to commiserate, “Power Yacht Triton, Power Yacht Triton, this is the Good Sailing Ship Panache!” the tight British accent with a palpable note of hurt and indignation continues, “I’ll have you know I too was attacked by this vessel; that man aboard is totally out of his head—I mean to say he is unstable and can act unpredictably. He set my own vessel afire with gasoline not two days ago. I suggest keeping someone on watch at all times with him around!” Again the cool voice, “Thank you Captain, we’ve, uh, come to the same conclusion and I believe we have the situation under control.” Panache continues, “Well, I thank you for the words of encouragement and keep me posted as to that boat’s whereabouts, will you.” (As if Panache of all people wasn’t out on deck with the rest of us planted behind a pair of binoculars.)

Five minutes later, Triton pulled anchor and steamed out of the harbor and out of sight. The Frenchman weaved unsteadily off and finally ran aground on the south side of the harbor, where he stayed for the next half hour. “I believe the Crazy Man is aground!” “Good riddance!” Then people felt the need to fill in with gory details. “Is that black guy still on the boat with him?” (We found it very weird and somewhat disturbing that the Frenchman’s local friend is always referred to as “that black guy,” as nearly everyone here is black except for the gringo tourists.) “Well, they may have had a falling out after the black guy pushed him overboard.” (What the hell?! This was just getting weirder.)

At last, the Frenchman towed himself off the rocks with his own dinghy, pulled the sailboat back to where he started, and dropped his anchor. The VHF fell quiet with only a few peeps now and again from those unable to get their word in earlier: “Someone should cut his dinghy loose and then maybe he would be less of a problem.” “We ought to set HIM alight!” “No, what he needs, is someone with a gun to just take him out. It’s the only answer as far as I’m concerned.” I’m actually a little surprised at the viciousness of the radio chatter, but I guess I’m new to these parts.

The next morning we woke at dawn to find a solitary dinghy floating free in the bay; someone from one of the other boats went over to retrieve it and discovered it did in fact belong to the Frenchman. Not wanting to attract unwanted attention but unwilling to let a dinghy just drift off to sea, he tied it to a nearby wreck and split. Later that day, “the black guy” fetched the dinghy and brought it back. The Frenchman’s boat is now silent and I never see anyone out on deck ever, I just notice that sometimes the dinghy is gone or that it is back, or that his mainsail has come down—although never the mizzen. The boat hasn’t moved since.

crazy french dudes boat. Amel 53. Portobelo, Panama

The Crazy Frenchman of Portobelo. Note that he is actually out on deck this time—a first—putting his mainsail back up. In addition to his national and Panamanian courtesy flags, he is also flying the flags for ‘Q’ (or the Quarantine flag), ‘N,’ and ‘C,’ which is probably code for “En garde! For tonight I strike!” At any rate, we’ll keep our radios on.


totally burned boat. Portobelo, Panama

And strike he did. Around 4am this morning when the roosters and birds were just starting to make noise, I woke up to a radio blip thinking I heard the word ‘fire,’ so we popped out of the cabin to check things out. Across the anchorage, the nearest boat to the Frenchman was in flames. Major flames. A police car sat on shore with the lights flashing but as far as we could see, no other action was being taken. The Frenchman’s boat loomed nearby in the darkness, main and mizzen fluttering but otherwise silent. The victim was an uninhabited boat and so a nearby boater dinghied over with a bucket to put the flames out. Once the fire was out, the police left and no action was taken, as no action against the Frenchman has ever been taken thus far. Panama’s jurisdiction happily ends at the shoreline where crazy Frenchmen are concerned and the French embassy has also expressed little interest in rectifying the matter. As with Panache and Triton, there was no provocation whatsoever for the attacks and unfortunately, this boat is a total loss with the entire cabin inside burned and the decks spongy.

FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS It turns out that the boat was owned by an Italian expat (the rumor mill turns…) and the severity of the attack finally forced a little action. The Navy came and removed the Frenchman (yelling and screaming) from his boat just about an hour ago.