The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Golfito, Costa Rica, 31 December 2009

New Years Eve is still a young day as I write. There has been no rain here at this Pacific coast harbour now for two whole days. So, I guess the dry season has arrived. Way out over the ocean some thirty miles away, however, there are the usual big cumuli. Maybe they won’t come ashore today again. I almost miss the rain!

I do miss Kathleen, however. Takes me a week to get used to functioning without her around, and not just because she handles the money and can actually count in her head. It's just not cool without her. Here are pictures of us going ashore for her to leave and pictures of us getting to the Frontera on the bus.

If Christmas and the dry season have arrived, the tourists certainly haven’t. Tim, of Katy and Tim, the managers of Land & Sea Marina, Real Estate, Property Management, etc, tells me he has never experienced a Christmas season like this one in his fourteen years here. “See all those sports-fishing boats at the docks all along the waterfront? They should normally all be out with paying guests who have flown down for the break. I haven’t seen any sports-fisherman go out in days.” The real estate boom seems to be over for the moment, too. All those gringos who were working in Maine in the summer and spending the winter down here and building a house for when they retire here permanently? They aren’t even coming down to inspect the progress of the construction. Some of them are months behind on their live-in caretaker’s pay and they owe contractors for materials and labour. Tim keeps an eye on things and even, I guess, acts as a contractor. He ‘owns’ lots of parcels of land in is own right all along this narrow neck of land where the marinas are situated (basically the buildings are either built out over the water on stilts or, houses, built on the side of the hill; the road used to be United Fruits’ railway bed). He is having to carry the costs for the owners until even he can’t handle it any more and writes to tell them that their properties are now going to be abandoned.

So, the economic depression in North America is really biting down here too. This of course does not yet mean that prices are falling. Noooo, siree! In fact, some prices are even going up. The dinghy docking fee at Land & Sea, for example, has stayed at $5 a day, but there is no discounted monthly rate and now they have added a $1 per day ‘internet usage fee’. Boats on Land & Sea buoys pay $8 daily (including dinghy docking plus another $1 daily for internet. Beers that used to be $1 each are now $1.50. A stealthy way of increasing income. I guess the old economic-pricing theory that when supply surpasses demand prices begin to fall is not really working. If the theory is right, that implies a monopoly or an oligopoly situation or price-setters are in denial. I definitely ration my visits to Land & Sea’s dinghy dock and, now that I have cleaned up my ‘marina’ bill as of yearend (it felt like a good thing to do as we go into 2010), I shall be thinking of finding another anchorage perhaps nearer to town. I am currently the only live-aboard cruiser at Land & Sea, so there’s no social life here as such. Maybe when bluewater cruisers Karen and Mike return from the U.S.A.

My friend Julio of S/V Pancho from Chile stayed here for three days. He left Panamá City to renew his Panamanian visa (you have to be out of the country for at least 72 hours after ninety days to get a ‘renewal’). Although he is still quite young, Julio is a retired detective chief inspector from southern Chile (I suppose to get the loyalty of the police, Pinochet made retirement possible after either 20 - 25 years of service). Julio and I met in Ecuador and we keep bumping into each other wherever we go. He too has tried several times to get to French Polynesia and has had engine trouble. At present his Volvo Penta engine has been pulled from his Swedsh-built sloop, and is being overhauled for $2,500 at Tornillero Alfredo’s shop in Panamá City. When I am with him and Maria, his novia, I get to practise my Spanish whilst chatting with a cruiser. They left early this morning for Panamá City, however. Maybe Ron & Diane of S/V Batwing will arrive soon, or Tom and Beate of S/V Luka.

The incessant rain and humidity till now and Kathleen’s departure for Frankfurt on the 23 December rather discouraged me from attacking my list of nearly 40 projects. But the To-Do List hangs so prominently, nay threateningly, over Vilisar’s navigation station that I eventually resolve to get started. Going into 2010 I also resolve to start exercising and to reform my eating and drinking habits. My blood pressure is fairly high and I have to keep taking beta blockers. AS for drinking, I can only afford cheap schnapps anyway, which tastes awful; cheap wine is by no means cheap in Costa Rica and it’s the same acidic, Chilean Clos boxed red-wine and it’s about twice the cost over Panamá; so stopping drinking is not that difficult. I shall stick to beer and limit myself to one or two a day. This is not hard on the boat where drinking more than two warm beers is an impossibility. But at the cruiser lounge, that cold stuff on a hot afternoon is very tempting. I have also decided to cut down on strong coffee. This is a pity since Costa Rican coffee from the highlands is world class stuff. Moreover, the supermercados don’t even carry decaff coffee. The closest thing to it is a coffee made from mais. I mix it half and half in my espresso pot. It’s drinkable, I guess.

I get cracking and clean up the cabin this morning, wiping down painted surfaces with a degreaser and washing-up liquid. After all the engine work, there are a lot of places where dirty mechanics’ hands have left their mark. I climb into the forecastle and tidy up that as well while I searching for my palm sander. Yepp, definitely makes you feel better!

I row ashore to Fishhook Marina to talk to cruiser Steve living aboard a Seattle-based double-ender. He introduces me to Mike, the wharfinger, who immediately calls ‘Cucho’ (it’s some sort of nickname), a local mechanic. He shows up a minute later, and we discuss removing the contaminated diesel fuel from our large tank, disposing of it and cleaning the tank. They can do this. $200. I gasp. But Mike talks to him and the price is halved if I agree to pay $20 for the fee at the re-cycling centre. No problem. He can do it today at one o’clock. Since this is in less than an hour. I row immediately back to Vilisar to get her ready to up anchor and motor the several hundred yards to Cucho’s dock.

Bad news! Although I have cabin electricity, there is no noise at all when I try to start the engine. I check the fuses; one of the terminals on the fuse box, the one for the fuse to the starter button, is totally corroded away. How can this be since the whole set-up is only a month old? I row into Cucho’s dock to tell him and use the opportunity to go grocery shopping. A day later I meet Robert, the son of a gringo United Fruits employee (United Fruits created Golfito as a place to export the bananas they grew farther inland) who now lives here permanently. Tim describes him in his presence as the ‘best electrician and mechanic in Cost Rica.” Could he come out to Vilisar right away? He could. An hour and $40 later, the electrical issue has been taken care of and the engine starts first go. I let Cucho know that I shall be over next week, i.e., after New Years when the various heavy-drinking holidays are all over. That’s fine with him.

So I decide to address my woodworking task next. Ever since the heavy German-built steel boat dragged down on Vilisar in a squall at Las Brisas de Amador a few months ago we have needed to replace the shattered lightboard on the starboard side. The starboard lightboard had been broken back off the coast of Baja California (also a good story but I won’t get into it here), but I glued and screwed it back together and it worked fine. I decided to get matching new ones made by a carpentero in Panamá City.

But, I think the guy was basically senile: he got things regularly confused, would forget he had even agreed to do the job and even had to be pressured to cough up the models. Eventually, he made a pair of teak (he says) lightboards for $60. I still had to refinish them. (BTW, Dennis, a shipwright at Balboa, told me that Tito at Balboa Yacht Club - he manages the marine ways – is a pretty good guy to do such woodworking jobs; wish I had known earlier.) I take the lightboards ashore this morning, wipe them down thoroughly with acetone and then scrub them with bleach and lots of water to get the teak oils out of the surface in preparation for Cetol. At this point I realise that the Panamanian carpentero after he had glued up the lightboard, had taken out all the stainless wood screws except for one or two each and left the holes all unplugged. I walk into Golfito to find new screws (Ferretería Flores on the upper/parallel street; they have a reasonably good fastener selection, though relatively dear.)

Although the cruising population is small, there are some characters around. Walter is a carpenter from Las Vegas, Nevada. He’s babysitting a simply gorgeous refurbished wooden schooner called Almura that belongs to his boss back in the U.S.A. He schools me today in installing the screws and putting in teak plugs. He is bored at present until the owner arrives and they sail north and out of the country and I at least give him something to do and somebody to chat with. Today I also bring in my palm sander and go over the lightboards with it, and finally apply the first coat of Cetol Marine. Looks pretty good, if I say it myself. Later today Walter has gone fishing with a new girlfriend; he promises to pass on any surplus fish he catches, so I might have an interesting meal tonight.

Later, I gossip with Tim for an hour or so and he tells me tales of famous or possibly infamous cruisers he has known, the story associated with every boat in the anchorage, the financial details of running a marina in Costa Rica, the real estate scene in Golfito and the legal shenanigans that go on with boats and properties in this country. He has been a delivery skipper and a deep sea ‘saturated bell diver’ (look that one up) and now he has swallowed the anchor in Costa Rica. He is in his early fifties thoyugh with his white Santa-beard he looks older to me.

I keep trying to Skype with Kathleen but so far no luck, although she has been on the phone with her parents for quite a while, I guess. Get in line.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Golfito, Costa Rica, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2009

It’s midday on Christmas Eve in the tropics. The sky is still blue with puffy clouds and the temperatures are probably already well above 30oC. I have spent the morning writing and reading the internet as well as doing little jobs around the boat. By 0900 it was too hot to be out in the direct sunshine and doing anything by way of work. Inside the main cabin, I have all the cabin fans going to make up for the lack of breeze outside. It’s a good thing I am acclimated to tropical weather now and have learned when to be outside and when to be in.

The last leg of the trip to Golfito on Thursday last (17Dec09) was totally uneventful. We motored across the placid Golfo Dulce and through the well-marked ship channel into Golfito and finally dropped the anchor in front of Land Sea Marina, and have been able to turn off the engine for days on end and rely on the solar panels for energy even despite the frequent cloudy days and rain. Of course, it’s not really a marina in the sense that there are docks and slips and the like. There are a few mooring balls at $8 a day or you can use the dock to land your dinghy for $5 a day. If you want to use the internet expect to pay $1 per day more. Every ‘marina’ sets its prices differently. But the basic rule south of the U.S.-Mexican border seems to be that the poorer the country or the less on offer, the higher the prices. The mini-gulf (Golfito) is actually itself quite large and I suppose the holding is good everywhere. I am not sure why one couldn’t actually just anchor in front of the village proper or down near the old United Fruit banana docks and just beach one’s dinghy. I am sure there must be a tap where you could get some water nearby. It’s nice to meet the other cruisers, but I thought we were here to get to know other peoples and other countries. This will have to be investigated some more.

Speaking of locals and getting to know the area, I go with Kathleen by bus to Pase Canoa, the town at the Frontera to Panamá. It’s an opportunity to spend a little more time with Kathleen as she catches busses to David and Panamá City and then her flights to Europe, and to see a little of the countryside. Each way cost Es$650, or about $1.30. It being Christmas, the busses were packed and I had to stand for the 90 minute ride. It was packed but nobody shoved or butted in and everyone was quite civilised. People were heading to the towns bigger than Golfito in order to do some last-minute Christmas shopping at the duty free shops at the border. Ciudad Neily, on the way, and Pase Canoa are both considerably bigger than Golfito town.

I met a local couple and got into conversation with them. She is Costa Rican, but he moved down here from Florida years ago to work as a carpenter, liked it a lot and stayed on permanently. He complained that the cost of living keeps going up (Costa Rica is suffering badly from the worldwide economic recession: remittances from overseas workers are down, the cost of oil is up and sales of local produce is off; unemployment is high and climbing; import duties have been increased to 100% to reduce imports, and therefore trade and payment deficits; electricity will also go up 24% soon). On the other hand, he gets a U.S. Social Security pension, his overheads can’t be too high any more and the Colón has been falling against the U.S. dollar. So it was perhaps just knee-jerk whinging. Later he said the standard things that Americans tend to say to establish their bona fides: e.g. “Government can’t do anything correctly or efficiently!” (What about the Panamá Canal? What about Social Security?); “They let the Messkins overrun Texas! (Haven’t you got it backwards? Didn’t the gringos overrun Texas, turn it into a slave state, enslave the free black people already there while making the Latin population subservient? And, aren’t you an immigrant yourself in Costa Rica?) The healthcare proposals in the U.S.A. are ‘socialist’.” (Didn’t you just tell me that you get free healthcare in Costa Rica and stretch your Social Security by living here cheaply?) He was a nice guy, really. I just don’t get this blockheadedness and total lack of perspective.

I was pleasantly impressed at how green and prosperous everything looked all along the highway and in the small towns. Nothing opulent, and we saw no McMansions or starter castles, though perhaps they exist somewhere around here. All the living accommodations we saw (mainly little bungalows, some new-looking subdivisions, but no high-rise blocks) looked well taken care of with fresh paint, the gardens kept up and the lawns cut Nothing like as poor as the coastal areas of Ecuador. We also drove through miles of palm-oil groves and some banana groves. It was of course all very subjective and just glimpses. The Ticos of all ages that we met or saw (local name for Costa Ricans is Tico) look well-groomed, all with good teeth, healthy complexions, and many seem to speak at least some English. Historically, since there was no gold here, the conquistadores I understand more or less ignored this area and society became somewhat more egalitarian by comparison to, say, Ecuador or Peru where a few conquistadores ravaged the gold, killed or enslaved the natives, grabbed up all the land and then imported black-African slaves when the indigenas perversely persisted in dying of smallpox or simply running off to the high Andes rather than work the silver mines, weave the cloth or till the fields. In this area as all over North and South America (including Canada and the U.S.A.), indigenous peoples were of course killed off by disease; this happened at an early stage of Spanish rule. Today, you do see some native people, but not many by comparison with Panamá, etc. The Europeans, amongst them settler families, did not inter-marry with them simply perhaps because there were no indios. The busses we rode were clean and in good condition, unlike the Diablos Rojos in Panamá City. The collection of shops and malls at the border, on the other hand, although packed with goods and shoppers, looked hastily thrown together and, inside, everything was crowded with shoppers. It felt like a giant fire trap to me and I didn’t see any fire-fighting equipment when I looked cursorily. I bought some vodka at the duty-free liquor store and I think it was about one-third cheaper than at a big supermarket in Panamá, let alone the much more expensive normal-shop prices of Costa Rica. Food is much more expensive here, partly of course because CR does not have a FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with the U.S.A. and therefore, unlike Panamá, they don’t get the cheap, tax-subsidised American farm products. Whereas in Panamanian supermarkets, which can readily compare with anything in the U.S.A. including price levels, products or brands and the total size of inventories, nearly everything comes from the U.S.A. and is nearly everything is cheaper for the consumer than a dirt farmer in Panamá or most companies could hope to supply for., in Costa Rica, on the other hand, beer is twice as expensive, imported goods face 100% duties, some staple foods are much more expensive than in Panamá (potatoes, for example, cost a dollar a pound whereas they are half or less than that in Panamá City). Diesel fuel costs about $3.65 a U.S. gallon, whereas it is still around $2.75 in Panamá City, I think. Tropical fruit, mainly bananas, are pretty cheap here! So, potatoes, beer and diesel, all basics for a cruiser, are more expensive. Bananas look like becoming a main food for Vilisar’s crew!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Golfito, Costa Rica, Thursday, 17 December 2009

I can’t believe what a change today’s ‘seas’ have been! We woke up at first light with the seas near the surfing beach absolutely calm. And, as usual, no wind whatsoever. We take our time having coffee before pulling up the anchor. This seems more civilised than jumping up, going on deck in a semi-comatose state, yawning, starting the engine, pulling up the anchor, hoisting the mainsail and only then drinking a coffee once we are under way. It’s basically the same content, but it’s nice to have a ‘coffee in bed’.

Golfo Dulce is over 21 Nm wide and certainly navigable for ocean-going ships, though, from the light colour, it looks rather shallow. Twenty-one Nm from the Pacific entrance to Golfo Dulce, at the southern end of the gulf, there is a second even more protected ‘golfito’, and it is here that United Fruit started the export of Costa Rican bananas in 1938. In 1985, after building a company town called Golfito complete with permanent docks and a large ex-pat community, United Fruit capitulated to falling banana prices and closed up shop. This is the fate of all natural resource and agriculture communities dependent on export markets and even more so when the owners are foreigners. Anyway, this was a catastrophe for the local economy, of course, and it is only now recovering with tourism, a duty-free port, etc. It is certainly pretty here at first glance. On one side of the long cove is a low, wooded island and behind the town the lush green hills rise steeply.

Arriving at 1120 in front of Land & Sea Marina, basically a collection of mooring balls and anchored boats much favoured by cruisers because it is reasonably priced and actually offers something for one’s $5 per day dinghy-docking fee (grasping marina operators in Panamá City, please note), we shut the engine down and within half an hour we have all the sail covers on, the sun awning and windscoop rigged and the dinghy launched. There’s nothing like having run out of wine, beer and schnapps as a motivator for getting ashore.

We have another one of those little chats about whether we want to be doing this cruising thing and come up with the same yes and no answer. The trip up was either a lot of wind (Golfo de Panamá) or no wind whatsoever (most of the trip). Just getting up every day to push on with the noisy and hot engine with no possibility to stop for a couple of days at each place becomes a grind and gets old quickly. Basically everything worked well this trip with the exception of the dirty fuel problem. We got here on the small fuel tank with the clean diesel all right, and now I have to figure out how to get the dirty fuel drained and disposed of. With the advent of the dry season, it is time also to deal with the cosmetics, i.e., painting, but there are some other small jobs to be done too.

Kathleen leaves in a few days by bus soon to catch her Christmas Eve flight to Germany from Panamá City. We shall go ashore this afternoon and collect information about long-distance busses across the frontera, to take hot showers, have a cold beer and check the internet. Tomorrow is check-in day. Welcome to Costa Rica.
At sea between Pavones and Golfito, Thursday, 17 December 2009

It was a long and boring day yesterday. The Costa Rican side of Cape Burico is wildly beautiful and lushly green with large hills running in a spinal ridge and increasing in height from S to N. These hills drop steeply into the sea with no harbours or beaches to be seen, unlike the Panamanian side which offer more by way of beaches and harbours. There are ranches and some houses visible, but it looks more or less uninhabited until we are nearly halfway to the top. Including the long trip around Punta Burica our total mileage for the day is about 40 Nm, and old Lister gets right at it with his workhorse ability. He’s not fast but he plugs away. After midday some sea breezes come up to our advantage. The Pacific swells are much more noticeable on the west side of the cape: very big but slow and we only ride up and down with no real bother. Against the steep shore, we see them crashing, however.

Pavones is not really an anchorage at all. It is the site of one of the major surfing beaches in Central America. Just after you reach the Golfo Dulce at the top of the cape, the huge Pacific swells provide some sport for those interested in this sort of thing. You can anchor off the beach and watch. This sounds positively frightening to me, and I am really apprehensive about the whole thing. But it is now too late to make the final 20 Nm to Golfito (get it? Golfo Dulce and Golfito? A gulf inside a gulf), so we shall just have to check it out.

Kathleen navigates us to the ‘anchorage’, which as I suspected us just an open roadstead again! You can see the huge surfing swells breaking on the beach about 200 yards away. But where we drop the anchor in 25-30 feet over sand again, there is relatively little by way of swells. We are getting a little breeze and some wind waves also coming form the SW. But no huge swells. Can’t explain it and once again I let out nearly everything I have to make sure. After all, the next piece of land upwind is probably Antarctica! And if a SW wind really blows up, we shall have to skip out of here fast. For that reason and because it is already late in the afternoon, we decide not to put up the sun awning. Vilisar rocks but doesn’t really roll even when the wind turns her sideways. Late in the evening even that stops altogether. I can’t get used to this exposed way of living at anchor! In British Columbia you wouldn’t even consider something that wasn’t protected on 4-6 sides!

We are hot and a bit short with each other. Kathleen gets out the swim ladder, strips off and dives in, sening the usual splash in through the skylight. But refreshing. I have apparently been bitten again by a spider or something, and have been lancing the place for two days and trying to drain it. Tropical waters tend to carry a lot of infections and it is always better to clean open sores or wounds with alcohol. I decide on a bucket bath and a rinse with fresh water. We are getting really short of drinking water now, so it is good that we arrive in Golfito tomorrow.

After a meal of refried beans and guacamole, we watch the second half of War and Peace, Carlo de Ponti and Dino di Laurentiis, while we have a brief rain shower outside. Great battle scenes and lots of horses and uniforms. The acting is all all right except for Henry Fonda, as out of place as a pork chop at a synagogue picnic. Kathleen is asleep before Napoleon wins Borodino. I am up for a look round at 0400. Completely calm and bright stars including the Southern Cross again. But there are a lot more rain clouds around and occasional lightening. According to our cruising guide, there is plenty of lightening around even in the dry season, ‘dry’ as in only one inch of rain per day.
At sea off Punta Burica, Panamá/Costa Rica, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

I suppose we could just have missed the anchorage on the Panamanian side of the long point that becomes Punta Burica. One side of that long finger is Panamá and the other is Costa Rica; the border runs more or less down the middle or the mountain ridge. We would have saved probably ten extra miles if we had been prepared to accept an overnighter from Isla Ladrones around to Punta Burica, up the Costa Rican (west) side of the cape to Pavones. But, if we don’t actually have to do overnighters, we don’t. We like day-trips of about 25-35 Nm that start in the cooler dawn hours, and try to have the anchor down by early afternoon. The sky is largely overcast this morning and threatening a squall or two both over the mountains to he NW and S over the sea. They never show up, but there is lightening around. The clouds at least keep things cooler, and with the ambient temperatures lower the engine doesn’t get so hot either.

The funny thing about the anchorage behind Punta Burica near Punta Balsa is that it is really just an wide-open roadstead. No cove, no actual punta or outcrop to hide behind. What makes it calm is the long sandbank running out from Punta Burica to the east over which those huge SW ocean swells break and lose their potency. Powerful waves broken by sand; there’s a sermon in there somewhere. Dropping the anchor onto a sandy bottom in only 25 feet of clear water, we are still at least half a mile out from the wooded shoreline where there are in fact a few houses (including some old-fashioned wooden ones and one really garish, two-story jobbie with a long yellow wall running in front of it. Ghastly!). There is no wind. So we wait till the anchor is down before dropping the mainsail. No other boats about except one or two fishing lanchas and the water like a millpond despite the fact that you can see breaking swells half a mile or so away to the south. It’s calm and shallow and good holding, but I let out all the chain and a lot of nylon rode because I am apprehensive about being so exposed. Quiet. And dark at night, too! At night we were remote enough despite the distant electric lights of Puerto Armuelles and even, over the horizon, David, Panamá’s second-largest city. Well, not totally quiet, I can hear dogs barking on shore and, later, howler monkeys in the palm trees that line the whole beachfront.

The only disappointment is the huge - and I mean really big - dorado that we hooked on the way in. He started leaping out of the water and doing his rodeo stunts and after five minutes he had freed himself and was gone. Too bad! I was already thinking about how to prepare him. Nothing much better than fresh dorado (mahi mahi).

Tomorrow’s run, probably our penultimate day, will start earlier so we can do the extra ten miles around Punta Burica and on north up the western side of the Costa Rican side. First light is always now around 0545 now, and you can see well by 0600. The sun is currently over the Tropic of Cancer (24o S). so the actual sunrise is not until round 0630. If we can keep up 4 knots tomorrow we shall be anchored at Pavones in Costa Rica by mid-afternoon. We should have a flood tide to help push us along during the morning.
At sea between Islas Ladrones and Punta Burica (Costa Rican border), Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Hot and tired, we arrive at Islas Ladrones about 1400. The sea had been glassy and the sky nearly cloudless all day. Hot and no wind. The heat from the engine and the heat from the sun are a bad combination and it takes hours to cool everything down.

As we approach the islands, essentially barren but wild-romantisch rookeries for boobies and frigate birds, we spot a Panamanian naval patrol vessel at anchor: L-26 Isla Jicaron. She looks like a converted fishing trawler, the grey naval paint flaking off her sides. But attached to her is a fast lancha with three big outboards at the back, and from the patrol boat’s pilot house there are plenty of antennas. No doubt this is part of Panamá’s effort to deal with drug trafficking, both Panamanian coasts, of course, being one of the main supply arteries from Colombia to Central and North America. We wave to the five guys on board as we anchor in the little patch of white sand in close under the north shore’s bluffs. We are totally out of the large SW ocean swells here, and the holding is excellent. I should hate perhaps to be here in a northerly blow, but for the moment it is perfect. Given the crowded nature of the anchorage, we decide to pass on the skinny dipping today and use the bucket for cooling off.

On two sides of us there are high cliffs with the constant chirping of young boobies, the parents of which are constantly flying back and forth to feed them. The frigate birds glide around over the islands on the thermals, or sit bored in the trees. The booby nests are on open rock ledges. The frigate birds nest in the trees. We spot some serene-looking males with their puffed-out goiters.

The cruising life can be challenging. The afternoon passes uneventfully except we must now decide what to do with the rapidly-ripening frutas that we picked up in Bahía Honda. Neither of us is fond of papaya; by itself it tastes like your feet have gone to sleep (Wie eingeschlaffene Fűsse!), as a German friend used to say. However we find a recipe for ‘green papaya salad’ in our Thai cookbook and decide to give it a go. Surprisingly, we have dried shrimp on board, but of course no more carrots or tomatoes! Tossing chunks or splitters of papaya (plus carrot sticks and small grape-tomatoes, if you have them) in a paste made of ground-up dried shrimp, five crushed garlic gloves, sugar, fish sauce, red pepper flakes or jalapeños along with about one-third of the ripe papaya does not seem promising. As a matter of fact, it smells disgusting. But also, as a matter of fact, it taste rather interesting. A little too fishy for my taste perhaps, but we also heat up some refried beans and mixed the papaya mix into it like salsa and it is a delicious meal. I told you the cruising life is tough!

The bananas have been ripening fast. They are the little fat bananas (orange inside) that are delicious and filling and that you almost never see in supermarkets at home. The five or six avocados also seem to be ripening quickly, so it looks like Mexican again tonight.

During the night, there are some rain clouds around and some flashes of lightening. A stray fishing boat comes into the anchorage after dark and is gone before dawn. The patrol boat’s generators go all night in a mildly annoying way, and they keep their fluorescent strip lighting on all night. If this is part of the drug wars then I guess we are quite safe here. Before dusk I watch as the sailors clean their rifles and other weapons. The fast motorboat never seems to leave after nightfall however, as I had confidently predicted. About an hour before first light at 0600 I hear the sailors sweating up the patrol boat’s rope and chain anchor line and they motor slowly away to the NE.

I stretch out for a few more minutes of sleep, but get up quietly at 0600. The sky is overcast and the sun awning is damp. I start getting it in anyway so it can be stowed below, at which point Kathleen appears with a yawn and still sleepy-faced. She looks around at the sky and the empty anchorage, then starts below again to get things ready. Our drill is to get going as fast as possible after first light around 0545-0600. Kathleen stows below and frequently starts the engine while I prepare on deck. Once we are out and going with the engine running, the mainsail up and the fishing line out (you are most likely to catch something near rocks and at sunrise or sunset, we have been told), one of us goes below and makes coffee. Kathleen usually takes the first shift at the helm and I get to rest after hauling up the anchor and hoisting the sails. It’s usually me who makes the coffee. Later Kathleen comes down and makes muesli or something else for breakfast. This morning she is lazy and starts noshing on the bananas and even bites into an avocado. I slice some now-somewhat stale white bread and smear it with peanut butter for us both. With the sky so cloudy, so much rain around and still no wind, I suspect that the ITCZ is nearby. The huge rain clouds confirm this. At least we won’t have to sit in the baking sun! Only 27 Nm to the anchorage near Punta Burica. Tomorrow we shall cross into Costa Rica.
At sea between Islas Las Secas and Isla Ladrones, Western Panama, Monday, December 14, 2009

The weather has been nearly perfect, unless of course you are trying to sail! Blue skies and smooth seas. No wind at all. Even the huge ocean swells coming in from the Pacific seem so totally unthreatening to us as to be almost invisible. We see them rolling up on the beaches and rocky coasts in the distance, but otherwise pay them no heed. A gentle up and down.

Sailing teaches patience, one says, especially that is, if you don’t have an engine. In fact, whilst we might be tempted to wait for a decent wind, we are now forced to motor if we intend to be in Golfito, Costa Rica, to check in before the weekend. Kathleen’s departure is getting close; so is Christmas. We consider motoring all night across the big bight that makes up the Pacific coast of Western Panamá. We neither of want to do over-nighters and, certainly not with the noisy, hot engine running. Conveniently, there is a whole series of islands at 25-35-mile intervals, which allow us to day-hop. We count out the days and the islands and make a plan.

Rio Santa Lucia is a relatively wide, deep and navigable river that flows into the Pacific some thirty miles north of Bahía Honda. Given some extra time, you could motor some ten or twenty miles up that river for supplies, and there is even a road out to the Pacific highway from one of the villages. Clearly this is not like isolated Bahía Honda, in other words. The area of Rio Santa Lucia, like everything else around here, is very hilly and many of the slopes are devoted to ranching. You can see the cows with the binoculars. There are also villages and either large hotels or private resorts both up on the hills in prominent spots or along the beach in pretty bights in the coast. At night there are actually electric lights to be seen in the distance, and after dark while we are sitting out in the cockpit drinking what it getting to be the last of our cheap Clos wine and Balboa beer, we can actually see Saturday-night fireworks just over the horizon to the north; some bucolic fiesta, no doubt. There is a constant though not heavy traffic in fishing lanchas and even dugouts in and out of the river. In the distance we see heavy, tropical rain squalls coming across the mountain divide from the Caribbean, which after all is only a few miles away. The rain never reaches us, which is too bad since we are set up tonight to catch rainwater. There are no-see-‘ems, though I don’t suppose we can list them under traffic. At night you might better call them a natural disaster.

The trip up the coast has been hot but uneventful, although when we leave Bahía Honda we circle in behind Isla Meridor; it is really charming back in there and it would save a lot of time on a passage to avoid going into Bahía Honda. We are still getting tremendous heat and a lot of exhaust smoke from around the engine. Kathleen even notices ‘sparks’ near one of the joins of the exhaust pipe. I think it is flames from the engine/manifold/muffler. This doesn’t make us feel any better. By the time we arrive inside the swiftly-flowing river mouth at Rio Santa Lucia the temperature in the cabin has risen to nearly 39o C (102 oF), and it is going to take hours for everything to cool down. Since getting shade in the cockpit during the day is problematical, we have determined as a rule now to get started as early in the morning cool as possible each day, and be finished in time for swimming and cooling off in the early afternoon. But at Rio Santa Lucia I resolve first to address the exhaust-pipe issue before departing.

At one time I would have been much more flummoxed by this engine than I am now. Thanks again to Tom, the Polish mechanic, I am able now to take a lot of things apart and fix them myself. I don’t mean, for example, that I could actually repair an alternator. But I can get it off the engine or adjust the tension of the belt. I can also test it for electricity, and generally diagnose the problem. I reckon, aside from the physical demands, I might even now know how to lift the engine and take it apart step-by-step; putting it back together might be a challenge of a different order! All this makes for a much less antagonistic view towards the engine. And, this morning I dismantle the various external bits and pieces to allow access to the back of the engine without having to lean uncomfortably over the block. I then climb nimbly inside the engine room (I have been losing weight on the boat so ‘nimbling’ has actually become easier). While Kathleen hands me tools and materials, I cram bits of asbestos matting into the gaps of the exhaust-pipe clamp, and then seal everything over with a special muffler paste used to seal joints. The goop seems to harden like steel when it is heated up, as I have discovered from using in it on the other joints. While I am at it, I also tighten the belt on the alternator and determine that I might profitably replace the light, white-plastic water-hose running from the WhaleGusher30 bilge pump; the hose seems to be slightly cracked at the top and is dripping a bit onto the starting battery. I put a plastic cover over the battery and make a note to buy more plastic hose. No rest for the wicked! With such activities does one fill one’s day aboard a cruising boat! I impress even myelf with how quickly everything gets done and how handy I am becoming.

We play canasta in the afternoon after we arrived here in the Rio Santa Lucia. But I am feeling flah – not to mention that I am losing abysmally to Kathleen. I beg off for a nap. Later we make a meal of pickled dorado and noodles as well as Olivia’s bananas from Bahía Honda, for dessert. The fish is great and the bananas are fat and sweet. Kathleen has baked a loaf of white bread while I napped, and, when we get hungry later, we slather peanut butter on it and chow down. Hmmmm! As usual, we are early to bed, falling asleep to the sound of parrots and howler monkeys.

We are late getting started this morning because of the engine work, I mentioned. Nevertheless, by 0915 the anchor is up (I am getting pretty fast at hauling it up by hand) and we are headed out through the river mouth. The current has scoured the bottom and our ancient depth sounder registers 40-70 feet. We are bound for the Islas Secas, and it looks like motoring all the way since the sea is glassy. We can see Las Secas straight ahead of us, the tiller pilot keeps us going in a straight line and it is not really necessary to be handling the tiller at all. Kathleen moves forward near the shrouds to sit in the shade of the big red mainsail and to read. I retire to a berth below with a book. It is only 17 or 18 Nm to Isla Cavada, the largest of the Secas where we want to anchor. We were there nearly exactly two years ago on our first trip up from Ecuador to Panamá.

We arrive and are anchored in clear, clear water by at 1400. Las Secas are privately owned by an American who had been ‘developing’ them as an up-market Club-Med type holiday camp. Charging $600 a night to get a taste of simplicity. Unfortunately, the man was killed along with his ten-year-old daughter two years ago when his private plane crashed in heavy rain into the high mountains in-country. The Yurts are still there, however, so maybe the project is going forward. At night there are only our anchor light and one light on the beach near the hotel, although before dusk two people, obviously tourists, come to the gap between the two islets to explore where we were happily skinny dipping off the boat.

The good news is that my ‘fix’ for the exhaust pipe seems to have cut out escaping exhaust fumes altogether, and it seems to take longer for the engine room to become hot. Of course, with so many exposed pipes, exhaust manifold, muffler, etc. it is obviously going to get hot in there. But at least there is no more smelly smoke. Captain Ronnie, Boy Spot-Welding King of the World, strikes again!

We had several alternatives for getting to Punta Burica, the long cape that forms the border between Costa Rica and Panamá. There is a small protected bight just north of the cape on the Panamanian side. We could stop overnight in the Isla Parida. This little collection of rocky islands is just off Boca Chica and has always been a favourite for cruisers in Western Panamá. The Marine park at the ex-penal island of Coiba and not only have the prices been jacked up to an astronomical level, someone has made the Parida Group into a Chiriqui State Marine Park and they want now to charge each person and each boat for energy or anchoring. This is infuriating, since they do nothing that I can see to look after things there; it is meant anyway to be left natural, and the only costs are therefore for men to come out in pangas and collect fees.

The alternative is Isla Ladrones (Thieves Island), which are much smaller and farther out to sea. They are also about halfway to Punta Burica. Since we are out of money (we didn’t want to be carrying a lot of U.S.-dollar cash if we were moving into another currency in Costa Rica) and don’t fancy having to pay for anchoring and the like, we opt for Ladrones. On a glassy sea, we have the engine started at 0615 and are motoring out of Isla Cavada.

At sea between Bahía Honda and Rio Santa Lucia, Panamá, Saturday, 12 December 2009

We were at Bahía Honda nearly two years ago and remember its sheltered beauty well. It is a huge bay with even a large island in the middle. There are no roads to it and the residents, if they need to get out, go by lancha or by horseback. We arrive by early afternoon and watch as a heavy tropical rain squall sweeps down from the high hills to the north. We are hoping to be anchored and collecting rainwater ourselves, soon. We pull around Punta Miel and anchor in a tiny, palm-lined cove rather than head to the top of the bay near the village; as much as it would be nice to spend a couple of days everywhere we stop, Kathleen is starting to come under time pressure to reach Costa Rica in order to start her trip back to Germany. We need therefore to get another early start in the morning. We are also running out of fresh foods (veggies, fruit, etc.) and even beer and red plonk.

We swim to cool down. A lovely breeze is coming over the jungle-covered hill from the sea. The hills themselves are covered in flowering trees, some yellow and some purple, some mauve. The afternoon is somnolent. Later, as night falls we hear the howler monkeys and certain melodious birds. As the beach expands at low tide we see a pure-white, great egret and a pair of snowy egrets wading near shore. I set the fish for dinner into a marinade, and as dusks arrive, get ready to fry the pieces.

At this point the not-unexpected little wooden lancha powered by an outboard puts slowly around the point heading towards us. Kathleen remembers that we met the people two years ago: Kennedy, his wife Olivia (their two children, Kennedy and Melanie, are not with them this time). Domingo, a better-known character and Kennedy’s father, also plies his trade on the bay, but he is not as nice, in my opinion. “Separate accounts,” says Kennedy in Spanish.

We chat for a while. They have a hard time getting stuff from town and are always eager to trade fruit or even fish for things like adult and/or children’s clothing, sandals, baseball caps, flashlight batteries (Ds or AAs), fishing lures (mainly for tuna), weights and line, powdered milk, laundry detergent, etc. Cigarettes were of no interest to them; we didn’t ask about alcohol since we are almost out anyway. You will wind up being generous and not really getting a great bargain. Now that they use an outboard (a 4 hp Yamaha about which Kennedy has nothing good to say for its reliability), they need cash for gasoline. They need a lot of gasoline to run the kids back and forth to the village school each day or to run out to yachts for trading. They might be out in the outback but they still want access to the cash economy. Too bad! We all know where that leads. There is no work locally, so if you want ‘things’ and you don’t have family member in a city remitting cash back to you, you do this kind of quasi-begging. Primary education, at least is compulsory. What will these kids be doing in ten or fifteen years? It’s the old conundrum of the simple life in paradise with fewer ‘things’ versus ‘development, i.e., a high-maintenance, capital and time-intensive life style that allows you have mutually-agreed upon important ‘things’, i.e., frequently items you can well do without and maybe don’t even have time to use.

Kennedy asks about the absence of cruising boats this year. We tell him that we have heard variously that fewer cruising boats will be coming to Panamá this year. The government is limiting visits by persons and boats to 90 days, and to get another quarter-year visa or cruising permit you have first to take yourself and your boat out of the country. On the Pacific this means only Costa Rica (200 Nm) or Ecuador (600 Nm). Renewals were never a problem for boats in the past: some capitanías just automatically renewed upon application or, if there was difficulty, you got a fixer and paid a bribe. It altogether less hassel and inconvenience than taking your boat out of the country. The Martinelli government however wants ‘zero corruption’ and all the laws administered as written. He is also trying to sort out the public-finance mess in the country and to start collecting the taxes. Ecuador has also now become more bureaucratic and limits cruising visitors to 90 days. It seems stupid since you can hardly leave in the hurricane season to go north and it is almost impossible to get south of Ecuador due to adverse currents and winds.
Panamá is also by no means a cheap country to check into.

Many boats from Ecuador for example, are going straight to Mexico, we heard, and bypassing Panamá altogether. After decades of hassle, the Mexican government finally woke up to the tourist potential of visiting yachts. They have simplified the check-in procedures and you can import your vessel temporarily for ten years at no or almost no cost. The government took an interest and got behind the Escalera project of new marinas up and down Baja. Whether they have overbuilt and whether these projects actually pay off, cruising guests at least feel welcome and not set upon as they invariably do in Panamá and Ecuador. Kennedy is perturbed about the lack of visiting boats.

We have a nice visit and send them off with a number of things. Olivia promises to return between 0730 and 0800 with frutas, which she does. It is Saturday morning and this time she has the two kids with her. Kennedy, Junior sets the basin of oranges, a pineapple, some papayas, a stalk of bananas and some big avocados up onto the side deck. They are mostly still a bit green, but will ripen as we go along. We chat some more. There are few vegetables grown locally except platenos (green bananas or plantains) at Bahía Honda. You can buy potatoes at the village store but they cost over one dollar a pound, i.e., more than double what they cost in town, Olivia tells us. Once weaned, the children are not raised on milk since there are no cows or goats nearby, even though much of Western Panamá has been cleared to ranching. None of the local people are large, but they all seem quite healthy-looking with good skins and strong white teeth.

Eventually we bid our adieus and they motor slowly back to the village. I realise afterwards that we had forgotten to give the children boiled sweets (aka hard candies), but we did give Olivia our small bills and loose change so that at least the gasoline is covered. I don’t suppose you really get a bargain here (I reckon we gave them about $30 worth of ‘stuff’ in return for a batch of fruit) , and I am not really sure in my mind that this is the right thing to be doing. I rationalise that I would rather give be giving them these things and even cash than be paying increasingly outrageous charges to the grasping marina operators in Panamá City. As I said, rationalising.

There being nearly no wind at all this morning (this is turning into a motoring trip!) we head out of Bahía Honda under power, but deciding rather than to go out and around Isla Meridor, to go through the interesting channel that separates it from the mainland. We check out a number of interesting future anchorages if one wants to avoid the detour into Bahía Honda.

It’s then 20 Nm to Rio Santa Lucia where we want to spend the night. It is sunny and hot, but we rig a small sunshade for the cockpit. At one point we have a moment of panic because there are small flames shooting occasionally out of the exhaust pipe where the muffler joins the pipe. Apparently the “caulking” has fallen out. No wonder that damned engine gets so hot! Not only is the engine hot, the exhaust pipes radiate heat terribly. Not sure what one can do about it. No worry, but something else to work on before we leave tomorrow. For the moment, the sea is flat calm and, if we can stay in the shade, it’s a cool place to be.
At sea between Isla Cébaco, and Bahia Honda, Panamá, Friday, 11 December 2009
After three days anchored in beautiful Ensenada Naranjo on the mainland, it is time to get moving. ‘Tropical waves’ (of weather) pass through in these latitudes about every three or four days, and we confidently expected the breezes to come around to a more northerly direction and give us a push to the W or NW. Meanwhile we manage a temporary fix on the fuel-filter problem, cook, play cards and read. Unlike the Golfo de Panamá where the dry season seems finally to have arrived, there are still nearly daily rain squalls here and we take our showers on deck and collect rainwater off the sun awning. There are some lancha-fishermen and some ranchers about; long slim open boats with outboards and several men in them pass us headed into the beach, and cattle come down to the beach at low tide. Otherwise, the area is deserted and quiet, and at night we never see any lights other than our own anchor lantern.

So yesterday we pull up the anchor shortly after 0800 and slowly glide out of the cove. The wind is in our favour, but still quite weak. Rainy mist still hangs over the green hills. It looks like a Chinese painting. Even this fitful breeze lasts only until about 1000 and then dies altogether. We throw on the Lister, something we hate to do. But we are headed across the 25-mile stretch to Ensenada Naranjo (i.e., the same name as the one we have just left), this being the only anchorage on the south side of Isla Cébaco. The morning and the engine get hotter, but the electronic tiller pilot alleviates the drudgery of steering. The electrical contacts have always been a bit iffy, so one of us sits out in the cockpit. At lunch, we heat up the remains of the borscht soup. This is our third or fourth meal from this batch. It’s getting old. The cruising life is tough.

Maybe I will have more luck catching a fish. As long as we still have fresh foods aboard that are likely to go bad without refrigeration, I tend not to fish. Now everything except some potatoes and some onions has been consumed and we are down to tinned and packaged things. After many years of cruising, too, I have made the profound discovery that one’s chance of catching a fish go up if you put a hook in the water. As the Germans say, “You never learn out”. After six hours of motorsailing I pull in the hand line again at mid-afternoon inside Ensenada Naranjo on Isla Cébaco. No luck today.

Ensenada Naranjo is well protected from northerlies – not yet admittedly a major problem for us, unfortunately- and relatively well protected from SW ocean swells provided you can cozy up to the southern side of the cove. The cove however is a base for Cébaco Bay sport-fishing tours. Along the long beach this outfit has posted ‘No Trespassing” signs on land, and they have set out so many permanent buoys, that anyone coming later has to take what he can get. I anchor first near some empty buoys. Later an America chap named Chris motors over and asks us if we could move since at night the winds will shift to the north, and we are likely to swing into the buoy. This buoy moreover he confidently expects to be occupied by one of his motor cruisers coming from David in the night. I don’t suppose they actually have any more right to the water than anyone else. But, they have squatters’ rights, and anyway he is very nice and says to contact him on Channel 06 if we need water, fuel, eggs, or anything else. I ask him if he has any extra fish, what with all their fishing activities. He says that fishing has been very bad, but that along the coast to Costa Rica we should find the best fishing in Panama. He will bring a fish over if his guests bring extra in. We move a couple of hundred yards off and anchor 500 yards off the beach in 30 feet with a nice sandy bottom that grabs our anchor at first go. The sport-fishing motor vessel never arrived in the night.

We don’t bother to rig the sun awning or cover the sails in the afternoon. We plan to avoid getting any more sun exposure then necessary the next day by starting right at dawn. After rummaging around for it, Kathleen eventually finds a bathing suit and announces she will swim ashore while I am making bread. Pleasantly exhausted from her swim and walk along the beach, she returns an hour later. The bread is rising in a pressure cooker set on top of the still-warm diesel engine. We swim around the boat and rinse off with fresh water, and then settle down to watch the sunset while we have a drink and eat (what else?) left-over borscht. Soon after dark, we move below to read.

Shortly thereafter I hear a strange noise like a roar and stick my head out of the companionway hatch. Everything is pitch-black towards shore and there seems to be a loud rushing noise. I recognise this as an approaching rain squall. It’s loud on the palm trees and other vegetation and then over the water as it moves towards us. Already big drops of rain are splattering on the deck. I do a quick check-round to make sure everything is put away, go below and slide the hatch shut. Let it rain! I stretch back out on my berth to sleep. The rain is hard and prolonged. Kathleen is determined however to catch rainwater and gets up to try and catch some off the furled sails. She actually manages to get about a gallon by standing out in the rain. I roll over and go back to sleep. Some people should be left to their folly.

Sometime in the night the rain finally abates. But the air when I get up in the night is heavy with water and the lights on board Cébaco Bay, the base ship for the fishing tours, look watery. Everything on the boat is still dripping. At dawn, we stretch and, like automatons, start through the drill of getting Vilisar moving. Thick clouds of mist still hang over the hill. The whole island is after all, I guess, a tropical rain forest. There is no wind and we are thrown back on the engine, which we start noisily at 0625, then weigh anchor, haul up the big red mainsail and motor out of the bay. Passing the reefs at the mouth of the cove, I remind myself to get a hook in the water. Loyal readers will recall the impact this actually quite simple action has on fishing success. Mornings and evening are better times to catch fish, rocky reefs are better places than far offshore; mid-tide currents are better than high and low slack. Something is working right! Ten minutes later we have a dorado (mahi mahi, dolphinfish, whatever). He’s a fighter too. I am using only a lure and stout nylon line on a hand reel. We are not sports fishermen who play the fish up to the boat and then let them go. No, no! None of that! We eat what we catch. Or, we intend to if I can get this sucker on board! I intend to drag this big guy until he gets really tired and I can then get him onto the deck. I was warned once by an experienced fisherman not to try to get a dorado on board too soon if I don’t have a gaff hook. Just tire him out thoroughly. Dragging a fish will drown him and then you can get him on board. The process this morning takes half an hour, however. I get him up near the boat after twenty minutes and admire his beautiful golden and blue colouring. Surely, dorados have to be some of the most beautiful game fish around! Even its eyes are stunningly colourful. Finally, he seems to have given up the ghost and, after half an hour of dragging, I can lift him onto the bridge at 0750. When we measure him, he is 40 inches (just over a metre) top to tail. All true! O exaggeration! Unfortunately, the camera’s battery gives up before we can photograph him, so readers will just have to believe this fisherman. I have a witness, remember!

The breeze has picked up after rounding the point and soon we are closehauled doing three knots or more, while I strip off and begin the somewhat bloody job of butchering the fish. Cutting off huge filets from a dorado is a relatively simple task although rather bloody at first. Soon I have a big bowl full of filets weighing probably five pounds in all. Hate to think what that might cost in Baltimore or Frankfurt! Kathleen has meanwhile put the pickling mixture on to heat. I cut the fish into chunks leaving some filets for our lunch, and when the brew is boiling I drop the fish chunks into it, bring it quickly back to a boil and then turn it off to cool. The excitement of the fish and the fishing somewhat makes up for the loss of what were after all simply sea breezes. We drop the headsails and throw on the engine. It’s still nearly 20 Nm to Bahía Honda, but we should be there by early afternoon.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ensenada Naranjo, Panamá, Wednesday, 09 December 2009

So, happy to be sailing again! I guess adventure means unpredictability, never knowing what’s going to happen next.

The coastline between Punta Mala and Ensenada Benao is plenty green and has some hills. There are still some large McCastles soon after Punta Mala. They are easily visible from one or two miles out. After Ensenada Benao it is still just as green. In fact, if anything it looks even lusher and more heavily forested. But, there’s almost a deserted coastline. Beyond the occasional thatched cabaña or tin-roofed shack, there are no signs of life whatsoever. And, with the possible exception of the little shelter-cove on the NE side of Punta Guanico some 10 Nm from Benao, there’s no place to stop for the next 40 Nm. But, what do we care! Leaving at dawn, the N wind picks up as the morning progresses, and we are pushing us along just fine. We should reach Ensenada Naranjo by dark.

This lasts until we are well around Morro de Puercos. From Benao westwards, the coastal landscape becomes much more rugged, with steep hills rising straight out of the sea and the hills getting steep as we go. Forty miles off we see one large wooded peak with a corona of clouds. These hills are now cutting off the nortos. At first the wind goes to fits and starts, the starts being quite strong as they are funnelled through the valleys. Within a couple of hours, however, the northerlies disappear altogether and we decide that, if we want to be at anchor tonight and not have to spend another night drifting around at sea only this time near a rocky and empty coast, we should abandon any idea about sailing teaching us patience or any of that sort of nonsense and just put on the engine. Let’s just get there! And anyway, it’s hot in the sun.

Things start off well enough. Our engine, repaired over so many weeks by Tom, responds immediately and off we go. When I come on watch a couple of hours later, wind and waves have sprung up from the SW and our speed has slowed down somewhat. Lister could only put out 19 ½ bhp when he was new some three and one-half decades ago. Have no idea what it is now. But, such an auxiliary motor was never actually designed for long motor cruises, but for getting into and out of harbours and setting anchors. It will push us along in flat waters at up to 5 knots. But let adverse winds, waves or currents appear and our forward speed is cut drastically. Does the engine sound a bit strained? I wonder about that oil seal we replaced. Will it hold? I see no sign of declining oil pressure or oil in the bilge. So, I guess it’s all right. Surely the slowness is due to an adverse current.

Whatever, that current is really becoming a nuisance. We begin calculating whether we shall make Ensenada Naranjo at all by nightfall. (By the way, “la naranja” is an orange and “el naranjo” is an orange tree). We would surely like that to happen. We discuss a bit about what to do if we don’t make it. The fallback plan is to head out onto the Pacific for sea room, and then heave to for the night. The waves and winds are at present light, and we wouldn’t likely roll around as much tonight. But, for the moment we shall stick to Plan A (Ensenada Naranjo) and see if we can make it before darkness closes in.

We have a basic rule never to enter unknown harbours in the dark. This rule is about to be put to the test once again. We keep looking at each other, hoping against hope that we can make it before dark. As we round Punta Mariato the hoped-for push as we bring the SW more on our port beam never materialises. The breeze is too weak and sailing not really an option if we want to make it. Our speed nevertheless seems to be diminishing all the time and I cannot coax any more out of Lister. It is going to be a tight race where every minute counts. We take in the sails on the run.

Still short by a couple of miles, the tropical sun plops into the flat distant sea at 1800 and the dusk thickens rapidly. The sky is largely cloudless although there are a couple of big dark rainclouds headed at us from Isla Cebaco some 20 Nm to the W. The half-moon won’t be up till midnight and wouldn’t in any case be of any benefit to us for a couple of hours after that. I get out flashlights and the plug-in spotlight and go forward to prepare the ground tackle in the bow. It must be 40o C down below: the engine is labouring full out and I apparently forgot to affix the bag that carries the heat off the engine and on up to the escape hole on the bridge. I also notice that the Whale Gusher bilge pump is not functioning. I wonder why? It’s too hot to get into the engine room now to do about all that anything.

We have a GPS waypoint that at least confirms to us that we have picked the right fold in the coastline for Ensenada Naranjo. And there is just enough residual light to guide us in and tuck us reasonably close to the rocky island where we drop the anchor in 32 feet of water at high tide. It is 1900 when we shut off the engine.

Have we broken one of our safety rules? 1900 is definitely 60 minutes past Civil Sunset, i.e., when the sun goes behind the horizon. But, on the other hand, it is still prior to Navigational Sunset, i.e., when all fifty-some-odd constellations can clearly be seen with the naked eye. (I think there is an Astronomical Sunset too, i.e., when there is sufficient darkness to view the distant stars.) With the naked eye we could still just see the outline of the rocky island and the hills behind the cove to the E, i.e., the darkest sector. But, it was nevertheless a near-run thing.

Pleased and relieved nevertheless that we are at anchor and nothing has gone amiss, we heat up the tomato vegetable soup that has been our mainstay for a couple of days and over dinner and a beer, discuss the engine. Just as we had been coming into the cove, I had asked Kathleen to put the engine into neutral so we could coast a bit. As soon as it was out of gear the engine began racing, and when it was back put it into forward or, later, reverse, it almost died on us. Only hastily returning to neutral prevented Lister from giving up the ghost altogether.

I guess I must be learning. Two years ago we learned from Carl on S/V Muk Tuk that this means one’s fuel filters are full of gunk and, under load, the diesel engine is getting insufficient fuel. Without that experience I would have been totally flummoxed tonight. And, not only knowing now what the reason for Lister’s straining and loss of performance all afternoon, but knowing also now how to cope with it allows me to get to sleep and develop a plan for the morning.

After a really good night’s sleep as we gently rock in the waves, and this morning after a cuppa, I get ready to deal with the ‘issues’. The first job is to get the hand-operated bilge pump working. For some reason it was not sucking. I pull it apart and clean everything and in half an hour it is working fine. Sometimes it sucks something up from the bilge and becomes clogged. The Whale Gusher 30 that we installed two years ago is heavy-duty in construction and large in capacity; it is also well designed for taking apart in a hurry at sea. Within half an hour I have the bilge dried out.

Now to the fuel filters. I had added two jugs (10 gallons) of diesel fuel to top up the starboard (i.e., larger) tank before we left for Las Perlas. I recall being a little suspicious of the fuel at the time. I had bought it months ago at La Boca gas station in Balboa, and it had been standing on the deck in the sun. The fuel’s colour was quite dark and at the bottom of the jug there was some sticky, gummy bits and there was sediment in the filter cum funnel that I always use to refuel. I was made even more nervous when I re-filled the two jugs I had emptied into the tank at different and more-frequented gas station in Panamá City. That batch of fuel had a nice yellow colour.

A quick search through the vertical lockers in the fo’c’sle by Kathleen reveals the stash of Racor filters. She had brought them back with her from the U.S.A. last year. At $24 a pop (they were the same price in Ecuador, surprisingly) they are expensive little devils. I decide to be cautious. Since I only poured bad fuel into the starboard tank, the port tank got nothing and still had good levels. The port tank is after all where all unused fuel in a cycle returns (a diesel engine does not burn all the fuel injected into each piston during each flash cycle and return-fuel lines take the excess back to a tank). An inspection of the filters will surely reveal whether both tanks are contaminated, thinks I. The starboard filter does look pretty gunky while the portside filter actually looks quite clean. I decide therefore to run only on diesel fuel from the port tank. I replace both primary filters anyway but turn off the taps from the starboard tank. Because the port filter appears relatively clean and because the fuel there is constantly being recycled and re-filtered through the engine, it should be the cleaner fuel, right? By only running on one tank, I save fuel filters in case I need to change them frequently. We are unlikely to use the engine excessively and anyway I still have ten gallons of clean fuel on deck.

By noon the filter changes are complete and I can devote myself to a nap and then to making bread and cooking meatless borscht. Shortly before sunset we are overtaken by a huge rain squall. We go like nymphs on deck to shower (it’s a picture, isn’t?), and to collect water off the sun awning. Later, the whole-wheat bread looks great and tastes even better as we cut off crusts to stuff ravenously in our mouths. Fresh and hot! In the absence of butter we spread just a tiny bit of mayonnaise on the bread; it seems almost like butter. The hearty beetroot soup is eaten with gusto that evening as well. Afterwards we settle down to watch a DVD. Dinner and a movie! What more can you want? It was a high-action film based in New York City called Conspiracy Theory. Even the Twin Towers were there. It starred Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. Strange to be transported to the streets of Manhattan and a government conspiracy and, when the movie finishes, suddenly you are back in total darkness without an electric light anywhere in sight outside and so dark you cannot see the shore two hundred metres away.

As I fall asleep I wonder how I shall get rid of the 40 gallons or so of contaminated fuel in the starboard tank or whether I can drain the tank and rehabilitate the fuel, I also wonder if my theory about running on just the port tank is a good one. The last thing I hear before dozing off is the distant roar of surfs crashing on some rocks a half mile away and the occasional roar of howler monkeys in the nearby tangle of tropical vegetation at the sandy beach about two hundred yards away.

Friday, December 11, 2009

BOUND FOR COSTA RICA II: Crossing the Golfo de Panamá and Rounding Punta Mala

At sea between Bahía Benao and Ensenada Naranjo, Panamá, Monday, 07 December 2009

After extended discussions and repeated calculations about just when we ought to leave Punta Cocos in Islas Las Perlas so as to reach Punta Mala at noon the next day, i.e., low slack, we finally settle for a noon departure. This is early and assumes a moderately slow passage. But, we reason, we can always heave to if we make a faster passage of the 95 Nm.

On Saturday noon, therefore, we have the anchor up and are motor-sailing out around Punta Cocos. The breeze picks up nicely and after less than an hour we shut the Lister down and are travelling closehauled WSW with all sail set under sunny and very hot dry-season skies. As the afternoon progresses and we come out from behind Isla del Rey and Isla José, the winds increase and soon we are blowing along at 5-6 knots and at times even touching over 7 knots. After all our fretting about getting to Punta “too late”, this looks set to be a fast passage after all.

In fact, after an afternoon in the hot sun, at 2030 we decide we shall have to heave to about 56 Nm short of our destination. We have thought we might just try Cabo Mala at any old time since we are going with the current anyway. But, this is our first rounding of that place and all the cruising guides warn of how tricky it is. We decide to stick with our original plan.

But, what a boring night it is! The wind gets stronger. Here out on the empty Golfo de Panamá, the southbound waves start building as well. We heave to on a starboard tack, and begin drifting directly toward Punta Mala at about 2 knots. That makes life simpler, after all; we won’t have to make that distance up in the morning. It takes some practice to get the sail and the tiller balanced. At first we are rounding up into the waves and it feels quiet as Vilisar bobs up and down gently for a minute or two. But, then she falls off, and soon we are rolling, the heavy wooden boom and the mainsail slatting like the dickens. We are keeping watch, but the rolling and the slatting along now also the low whine of the wind in the rigging keeps us both awake.

Did I say that the Golfo de Panamá was empty? Poppycock! There are actually quite a few lights out here. Big tuna-fishing boats are lit up like Christmas trees as they work their seine nets, and there is a steady parade of freighters and tankers and bulk carriers and even a U.S. warship or two heading to or from the Panamá Canal a hundred miles north. At first this is rather nerving. But, I remember reading in a book by a Puget Sound pilot that the big ships can see you if they are paying attention and/or their radar is on. It is therefore better to keep to your course and the pilots will steer around you. Sudden changes of direction throws them off and those large vessels are not all that manoeuvrable. It is frequently riskier at sea when watchkkeeping is more lax, and the ships often have their radar turned off. As Wolfgang (S/V Lumme) says, here in the approaches to the Canal, everybody is at full alert because of the traffic and the Canal control measures. His word in God’s ear! We are hove to and moving very slowly. We have our navigation lights on, and we have an excellent radar reflector (Luneburg technology) mounted on the spreader. If unmanoeuvrable ships like the tuna fishermen can avoid being hit, surely we can too. The ships pass us well ahead or astern. Then we see no more ships for several hours.

Sick of the rolling and slatting, at dawn we make sail again for Punta Mala. It’s 29 Nm to the waypoint but even closer to the actual cape. No matter what we do, we do not seem to be able to slow Vilsar down. 7 knots it is with the tide now ebbing! Hey, ho! For the bounding main! The southbound currents run at about 5 knots during the ebb and 3.5 knots at flood, but they are always running south. Punta Mala, here we come! The big ships stay out at least five miles when rounding the cape from the west. But we haven’t really seen any ships at all since before dawn. Eventually we pick out the 15-metre-high light at Punta Mala. Sailing W the whole time, we pass due south of Punta Mala light at 1000 with the ebb tide still running heavily and Vilisar doing sometimes in excess of 7 knots. None of this seems worrisome after our years dealing with strong currents in British Columbia and Alaska. And of course, in daylight one’s fears are reduced.

The current and the winds carry us rapidly W along the southern shore of Panamá. Our choices are now either to keep going for another night passage and possibly heaving too again to complete the seventy some-odd miles from the cape around Morro de Puercos to Ensenada Naranjo, the first good protected anchorage. Or instead, we could make for Bahia Benao, a famous surfing coast with swells coming all the way from Asia for the physical enjoyment of the dudes and dudettes. Although it is not always useable because of the swells, Benoa is only about 12 Nm westwards, and we should be able easily to reach it by early afternoon. Neither of us wants to do another overnight or to heave to in rolly seas. We are both exhausted from the sleepless and uncomfortable night at sea and dehydrated from the hot sun to boot. So, Bahia Banao it is!

We sail right up to the very broad entrance before dropping sail and motoring in. At first all we see is the long beach with huge swells rolling in. We have been witnessing these tremendous swells all along the coast from Punta Mala, sometimes as they roll foaming over semi-submerged rocky islets. But they are spaced so far apart that, a mile or so off, we hardly notice them. Benao looks are first to be a rather exposed anchorage. No, to the right as you come in, there is a big wooded and rocky island that allows you to hook around and find more quiet waters. By 1220, the anchor is down and the sun awing is rigged. We are holding well in 30 feet of sandy bottom. Instead of rounding Punta Mala at low slack just at this time, we are drinking a beer in the cockpit at Benao.

We spend the afternoon napping and trying to stay cool. Cabin temperatures hit 34o C. Bucket baths on deck help and/or lying quietly in the shade of the awning or in the cabin with the cabin fans going. There is a good northerly breeze even here under the hills and the boat keeps headed up towards the beach so we do not feel any swell at all; no rolling. We only finally begin to feel more refreshed as the air begins to cool in the evening, after we have both taken our electrolytes and after Kathleen has made a wonderful tomato and bean stew, which we wolf down with the realisation that we have hardly eaten anything at all since yesterday. By 1930 the lights are out and nobody moves until about 0500 in the morning when the cellphone alarm clock drags us out our sleep.

Monday, 07 December 2009

We have to cover 50 Nm to Bahía Naranjo today, arriving before dark at about 1800. Before dawn the anchor and the sails are up and we motor for half an hour to get far enough out on the Pacific to begin picking up a NNW breeze. The engine goes off finally and in the quite morning hour the sun begins to climb up out of the hazy eastern horizon and gradually our sailing speed increases from 3 knots to about 4.5 knots. We need 12 hours at 5 knots to make it by 1700. Lets hope for stronger winds in the afternoon at least.

An hour out and we are reaching at about 6-7 knots. After 10 Nm we round Punta Guanico and then Morro de Puercos (Pig Hill?) and the winds become fluky. Westward from Punta Mala the land coastline remains just as green, but it begins to become more mountainous. Around Morro de Puercos, we see a high volcanic-looking peak hardly five or ten miles back from the coast. This is probably Vulcàn. Around noon the wind finally peters out entirely and even goes right round to almost on the nose. We still have 25 or 30 Nm and around Punta Muriatico still do before dark and before we can find any sort of anchorage for Vilisar. The alternative is heaving to. But we are far to near the coast to want to do that and in an area with strong rip tides. Nothing for it but to turn on the engine and try motorsailing with a little help from the southerly breeze.

Neither one of us needs to be reminded that sailing a classic boat like Vilisar with an open cockpit (i.e., no protection from sun and rain) is no fun. There are still several investments we would like to make if and when we ever have enough money. For comfort, a proper bimini for the cockpit, for example. For ease of handling, a furling jibsail; I am getting tired and too old to be screwing around with that hanked-on jibsail on blowy and rainy nights. It is not altogether safe out there either when the weather is dirty. There has to be a better way. Some other improvements would be better mattresses and proper upholstery for the berths, shelving and other storage for the forecastle, comfortable outdoor cushions for the cockpit, and perhaps a more reliable tiller pilot. Maybe a quieter engine too, but that is not likely as long as Lister keeps on keeping on. We shall have to deal with the heat. But, it never hurts to dream.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Punta Cocos, Isla del Rey, Islas Las Perlas, Panamá, Saturday, 05 December

We deliberately got our Zarpe made to include time in the Islas Perlas.
This archipelago is somewhat out of the way if you are heading west to
Costa Rica, but we wanted to spend more time there just gunkholing. In the
end, we spent ten days in Espiritu Santo enjoying the tranquility and the
company of the few cruising boats that were there. In fact, we might have
left a few days earlier, but the onset of the dry season had played around
a bit with the weather.

If we were starting for Punta Mala from Panamá City, almost any wind with
a northerly component would do. But from here, we need at least NNW and
preferably N or NE winds to carry us across the Golfo de Panamá without
having to use the engine or bashing into waves. Tropical fronts move
steadily across from E to W along the top of South America. There will be
a few days of N winds and then a more W component. It's a question of
waiting for the weather window. Our friend Wolfgang on the German-
Panamanian cruising boat S/V Lumme was checking US GRIB weather files
(produced by computer for NOAA) daily for us; we waited a couple of extra
days until he informed us mid-morning yesterday that we ought to leave
right away for the bottom cape of Isla del Rey and jump off today
(Saturday) for Punta Mala. The weatherman promises several days of N or
NNW winds 5-15 kts. This would put us on a reach and give us a good
passage. No storms in the offing though the Golfo could kick up a bit
after several days of 15 kt winds.

Within the hour we had Vilisar converted from a gypsy caravan to a
cruising sailboat. Up went the red jibsail and we moved S on the NNW
breeze out of the anchorage at 2 kts despite the current, waving and
calling our goodbyes to the only other boats left at Espiritu Santo, S/V
Little Qwin (Alex and Angelika) and S/V Lumme (Wolfgang and Ute).

The tide is flooding and there is a strong current against us. Away from
the rocks and shoals, we get the mainsail and staysail up, pole out the
staysail wing-on-wing with the jib and run downwind to ESE at 2 kts. It is
a beautiful sailing day with clear blue skies, calm seas and a nice little
breeze. Given the gentle winds and the adverse currents, we wonder aloud,
however, if we will be able to make it to Punta Coco (18Nm) before dark.
If we decide not, we shall have to throw on the engine. It is already
plenty hot in the cockpit. Putting on the engine will only aggravate the
heat in the cabin.

There are whales feeding ahead of us. Suddenly, Kathleen calls me up to
the deck. A whale has risen directly in front of the boat and very close.
Fortunately we are only moving slowly, and it sinks again immediately, so
fast that I was not quick enough to see it. As we move forward however,
there is a huge slick right beside the boat, close enough to throw a life
-ring onto it if we wanted. It never surfaced again but it gave us a funny
feeling in the tummy to have such a large beast so close to us.

Several miles out, we gibe over and start heading SW. Now on a nice reach,
our speed picks up to over 4 kts despite the current against us. Once,
passing between two islands, we had to throw on the engine for ten minutes
to get through the strong currents. But as the afternoon wears on, the
wind picks up and the currents become less strong, our speed picks up to
first 5 kts and then even touching on 6 kts.

We arrive at Punta Cocos and consider anchoring very near the point under
the Servicio Maritimo building. But the small waves are blowing in there
and we move over NW about a mile or two away where it looks calmer and
anchor in clean sand well off the steep beach and huge mangrove lagoon.
There are still some wind and wavelets here, but the holding is good and
the wind keeps us headed up so we don't roll. We are settled in time to
hear the incredibly loud dusk chorus of the thousands of birds in the
mangroves and to watch the sun redden and slip behind the trees to the W
in a nearly clear sky. It takes a while for full darkness, but when it
comes, the clear skies and the complete absence of artificial light bring
out the stars incredibly intensely.

While we enjoy the dusk and darkness, we are reminded that our daughter
Antonia turns twenty tomorrow. Hard to believe, but she will no longer be
a teenager. She is a young woman. Does this make me feel old, or what?

We spend a lot of time both last night and this morning trying to decide
when we should actually get started for Punta Mala today. Punta Mala has a
very bad reputation, especially if the strong currents meet opposing
winds. On top of this, commercial vessels coming E towards the Panamá
Canal create another hazard. It's about 90-100 Nm from here, and given
the very strong southbound currents and rip tides there we want to arrive
in daylight and preferably at low slack tide (about noon on Sunday). The
then incoming tide might give us a little extra push to the W once we are
past the cape. Approaching in daylight makes dealing with the shipping
lanes better too and we might have time to make an anchorage before dark.
Benoa is the fist one but Ensenada Naranja would be better and Isla Cebaco
would be ideal.

We finally decide to leave about noon. This morning early we get the
dinghy stowed on the foredeck and then relax below to await departure
time. There is a really nice breeze pretty nearly out of the N. This
should be a good overnight passage. If we arrive too early, we can always
heave to for a couple of hours and take it easy.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Isla Espiritu Santo, Islas Las Perlas, Panamá, Thursday, 03 December 2009

Time flies when you're having fun! It also goes pretty quickly when you
are doing nearly nothing.

We have now been here anchor now for just over a week. Every six hours the
tide changes and the boat swings around by 180 degrees. We are just now at
the full moon and the tides are at their most extreme for the month. At
this time of the year, the full-moon tides are getting a little higher
each month, sending the logs and debris that have been washed off the
beaches through our anchorage. Occasionally we see whole, leafless trees
pass through and we know there will be lots more out in the Gulf of
Panamá. There they are recognizable (at least in the day or moonlight) by
the large numbers of seabirds that use them as resting perches. At night
the logs can be a nuisance.

With the arrival of the dry season, the temperatures climb rapidly during
the sunny mornings to exceed 30o C. Unless I wet it down with seawater,
the painted deck becomes a little hot to my bare feet and the bronze bits
are intolerable. I try to get any little jobs done before 0900 and take it
easy after that. By noon, the air becomes listless and despite the sun
awning we stay below where the cabin fans keep things comfortable for a
few hours longer. By late afternoon, it is better in the cockpit provided
one rigs some side curtains against the declining sun.

The electrical plug for our Iridium satphone acts up, and suddenly we are
not able to recharge it. We make a little trip to S/V Lumme to get help
from Wolfgang and have a visit with him and Ute. It is early afternoon.
There is no breeze and we are all bathed in perspiration. Clearly it would
be better to be taking a siesta, but Wolfgang graciously spends a few
hours taking apart our plug and getting things working again. Apparently,
we simply let the battery level get too low and it could not get itself
going again.

While we there we had a general discussion about the pros and contras of
Iridium satphones versus a shortwave alternative like Sailmail or Winlink.
We bought our satphone seven or eight years ago when there were perhaps
more limitations to SSB (Single Sideband) or HAM-based systems than there
are now. Back then, being able reliably to get online via shortwave was a
severe limitation though Wolfgang says that, with the increased use of
computers onboard and more access frequencies, this is no longer a real
issue. And Sailmail only costs $250 per annum.

The satphone, of course, is much more expensive, but it is still able to
deal with a lot higher volumes of data than the shortwave alternatives
and, with Iridium, access to a signal is always available anywhere in the
world. Not to mention that, if we wanted to move to shortwave we would
have to come up with at least $1,000 or $1,500 in equipment and
installation costs to get started.

We have a SSB receiver that we bought used from another cruiser. It is a
very nice piece of equipment, but we have not yet got into the habit of
listening into the regular daily cruiser chat rooms. We tried it the other
night and got nothing, but according to Batwing, "propagation" was
terrible. What do we know? I personally can hardly stand even five minutes
of static and fiddling with the dials, so if Kathleen is not interested in
the shortwave community aspects of all this, we might not become devotees.

We have postponed our departure from Espiritu Santo after Wolfgang
downloaded GRIB weather files. These are excellent weather sources
prepared by the NOAA in the U.S.A. The 5-day forecast shows mainly W and
NW light winds for the next three days or so, which is not particularly
good for a crossing of the Gulf of Panamá to Punta Mala. Without the
forecast, we would probably just have made the transit anyway. It would
not have been risky, but it would have been bumpy and largely to windward
and we would have had to motor all or most of the 100 Nm around the point.
We have approximately three weeks before we have to be in Costa Rica. So,
we shall stay here for a few more days.

It's not like it is a hardship posting, after all!
Isla Espiritu Santo anchorage, Islas Las Perlas, Panamá, Sunday, 29
November 2009

So peaceful here in Espiritu Santo! But, between longer bouts of doing
zip, I have been working on little engine projects: for example, I sealed
the exhaust-pipe joints with a salve-type sealant and wrapped the lengths
of 2-inch, galvanised pipe with asbestos cloth to help keep the heat in
the engine room to a minimum. I coat the asbestos with leftover red spray
-paint at the end to make sure there is no dust flying around later. The
pipes now look like wrapped racehorse legs, but red instead of white. The
stuffing gland had been dripping mightily and I got back behind the engine
and tightened it up (basically it had only been tightened 'hand tight'
when the shaft was re-attached to the engine, and it was no big deal to
rectify. While I was back there, I gave the engine and engine room a good
cleaning and wiped the engine down lightly with diesel fuel. If I can get
myself to do two projects in one day (gasp!), I might even consider making
new sleeves for the dinghy oars by sewing on lengths of leather with waxed
sail thread and/or install the tab for the windvane steering in
preparation for our 100 Nm crossing of the Golfo de Panamá to Punta Mala
sometime soon. But, maybe that will be tomorrow.

Yesterday we go with Ron, Diane and Erika of S/V Batwing to the far side
of little Isla Espiritu Santo; it's only a small walk through the jungle
from the inside beach to the beautiful and deserted white beach on the far
side. It is exposed to some ocean waves at times so there is a good
selection of plastic trash as well as bamboo or mangrove logs above the
high-water mark. I was on the lookout for larger plastic containers to
catch rainwater and was successful in my scavenging. I guess you could say
the beach is not really pristine; on the other hand, it is deserted and in
general very clean. We had brought our snorkelling gear and, although the
water is bit murky after all the rains, we are able to see lots of
tropical fish along the reef.

Roger of S/V Sea Fury seems to be the main provider of fish for the
anchorage and yesterday around dark he brings us a huge filet of sierra
mackerel (again), which ten minutes later we are frying briefly in a pan
with a bit of oil and touch of Thai curry paste. We eat the fish with
boiled potatoes. There is so much fish that our tummies are extended.
Tonight we shall go over to Sea Fury to watch a DVD on their large screen.

Ever since we arrived here the skies have been threatening rain. Last
night was no different. In the rainy season, Islas Las Perlas sit more or
less right in the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone or 'Doldrums').
When the dry season arrives however, the ITCZ moves south towards the
equator, and Panamanian waters are favoured by Trade Winds, which are
generally strong northerlies.

Right now the weather is changeable and, although we get some nortos, the
Trades have not really set in. A wind blew up from the north last evening,
however, and blew small waves into the anchorage, the wind whistling in
the rigging and Vilisar tugging at her anchor and begin confused by the
fight between the current and the wind. Now that I have set up our sun
awning to catch rainwater and found two quite large plastic containers on
the beach to catch the water, and although the little squall blew for
quite a while, there is of course no downpour. Rats! There are a couple of
freshwater streams ashore, but who wants to lug jerry jugs when you can
catch rainwater? As I said, the weather is changeable and one lives in
hope. Today we are being provided with 10-15 kt N winds and bright
sunshine, 30oC temperatures and blue skies with puffy clouds. Trade wind
weather. We are enjoying it and are considering getting our dinghy sail
and spars rigged to sail around in the anchorage.

When the winds come predominantly from the north we shall more easily be
able to sail to Western Panamá and Costa Rica. It is about 400 Nm
altogether and there are one or two long overnights. We want to stop at
interesting islands or remote harbours if we have the time and perhaps
even spend a day or two at each place before arriving in Golfito, Costa
Rica. Kathleen has to be back in Panamá City by Christmas Eve to catch her
flight to Frankfurt. We shall probably leave here on Wednesday to get down
to the bottom of Islas Las Perlas (e.g. Bahía Cocos or Isla San Jose) and
jump off from there when we get the weather we want. Once we have checked
into Costa Rica and Kathleen has taken the long-distance bus back to
Panamá City, I shall be solo aboard and gradually move the boat back
towards the Gulf of Panamá and perhaps also back to these islands before
Kathleen returns in early March. Then we shall make our final decision
about heading off to Polynesia and the South Pacific. Generally, we are
inclined to go, but after our frustrating experiences this past season, we
are loath to make firm plans until we are quite close.