June 19, 2009
Knowing that the trade winds do not blow very strongly in the southwest corner of the Caribbean and that some squally weather would eventually catch up with us again, we decided to leave Little Corn Island to make the overnight passage to Panama early on the morning of Wednesday (June 17th). A fishing boat had anchored fairly close to our bow the previous night such that when we pulled up our anchor we could almost clamber onto their boat but a couple of the crew appeared on hearing our windlass and we were able to pull the anchor up before it was necessary to fend the boats off. Luckily, our VHF radio conversation to discuss this with Sea Star awoke Jamie (who appeared to have slept through his alarm). With a good northeasterly wind and 5 to 7 ft swells, we spent a glorious morning sailing southeast towards Bocas del Toro, at the western end of Panama’s Caribbean coast.
Then at noon the wind suddenly shifted by 60 degrees so that within less than a minute it was coming at us from head-on. Like Sea Star ahead of us and Wind Song just behind us, we started tacking but the waves were getting pretty confused and the wind soon started to decrease so we ended up starting the motor. We left the mainsail up to reduce the rolling in the waves and accepted that the rest of our 180 mile passage would be in decreasing wind under power. As the night progressed we watched on the radar as a couple of rain-laden squalls approached our route. There was associated cloud-to-cloud lightning and very occasional cloud to water strikes but nothing too worrying and surprisingly little wind. Watching the radar we tried to dodge the worse of the rain but after various slow swerves it was not obvious that maintaining our original course might not have been just as effective.
A few hours after dawn, Jamie claimed the first “Land-Ho!” having managed to distinguish the dark, looming shapes of some of the tall mountains on the Panama and Costa Rica border from the many layers of clouds. It must be admitted that there was some skepticism from other members of the fleet but when I returned to deck after my off-watch sleep, I was excited to be able to confirm his sighting. The mountains are not particularly close to the coast but are high enough to be seen from a considerable distance. Our approach to the western entrance of the complex series of bays and islands known as Bocas del Toro (mouth of the bull) was made a little more interesting by the rapid approach of an unloaded cargo ship. Dan made our presence clear to the captain who assured us that he was going to turn before reaching us to go in the same channel as we were, at Bocas del Drago (mouth of the dragon). Indeed the ship did turn in the same direction as us and rushed past as if racing us to get to the marked channel first. It then suddenly made a very quick turn to the right and looped back past us in a much tighter and faster maneuver than any of us thought possible for a medium-sized container ship. Subsequent radio conversations followed by an official-looking launch rushing out of the channel to approach the ship revealed that they had to (rather impatiently) wait for a pilot in order to negotiate the marked but twisting channel to get to the small cargo port at Almirante on the mainland.
We started to follow the channel, keeping a wary eye on the ship that was now behind us, but were able to turn out of it before we were re-passed by the impatient captain. We motored the length of Isla Colon, arriving in the early afternoon at the anchorage off the Bocas del Toro Yacht Club and Marina. There were about 20 boats already anchored in an area that had very variable depth so we had to pick our way around to find suitable places to anchor. Randall and I eventually selected a spot that initially seemed quite good until we noticed a small rock/coral head ahead and starboard of our bow. Anxious to start on the port clearance paperwork and then get some rest, Randall snorkeled in the clear water to ensure that our anchor was well set and that even if we swung over the rock/coral our keel would not hit it. There was very little wind so it seemed unlikely that we would move much before the next morning when we could reposition if necessary. As we would discover in the early hours of the next morning, this was not one of our best decisions.
In the meantime, we waited on our boat with the quarantine flag flying, having been told over the radio that the port officials would come out to see us. Another Canadian boat (Wind Quest) had called in just before us and about an hour after we arrived, I watched with interest as a launch with four passengers tied up to their boat for about 30 minutes. When it was our turn the launch tied up to our stern and with some heaving we managed to get the four officials aboard. The ladder to get into our boat was quite a climb for the two larger ladies in their smart shoes and office clothes. But they all settled into the cockpit and drank chilled Gatorade quite happily as reams of forms were completed, signed, and shared. The various charges quickly added up (including paying for the launch) so that we had well over $200 invested in the process by the end, but there was no attempt to inspect the boat beyond the cockpit or ask any particularly penetrating questions. We were then told that we needed to go to the Port Captain’s office before 5 pm that day to pick up our cruising permits. Thus, while the team of officials (port captain, quarantine, customs, and immigration officers) visited Wind Song and Sea Star we got our dinghy in the water ready to go ashore once the officials were back onshore.
Luckily, a fellow cruiser stopped by in his dinghy to tell us where there were a couple of docks at which we could leave the dinghy while we went into Bocas town (across a small bay from the marina) and we did not have too much trouble finding the Port Captain’s office where we waited patiently as the pages of our cruising permits were printed and signed. The process was not quite complete, however, and we were given our instructions for getting our tourist “cards” or endorsements in our passports the next morning. Once the visit to the Port Captain’s office was over, we walked down the main street enjoying the friendly ambiance and happy-looking mix of locals and visitors on the street. After happy-hour and pizza at an open-air restaurant we were soon congratulating ourselves on finally arriving in Panama and looking forward to a few weeks of catching up on various things before we moved along the coast.
At about 3:30 am on Wednesday morning, I was awoken by rain and the wind generator kicking-in, only to find that we had indeed swung around by 180 degrees over in the direction of the rock/coral which we could not see in the dark water even with a powerful flashlight. This was not too disturbing until we heard a brief, loud, grinding noise. So we started the engine and sat up until daylight ready to pull in the anchor and cruise around in deep water until we could find a new place to anchor. We were pretty confident that it had been the anchor chain and not the keel that rubbed on the obstruction but we felt bad about any damage that might be caused to the coral and did not want to have to worry about boat damage. We studied the local tide-tables thoroughly to make sure that the water was not likely to get shallower than when we had anchored the day before. Daylight showed that indeed as the wind changed direction and strength and the boat swung around, the chain had swept across the bottom and came to rest against the rock/coral. It did not appear to have ground anything off but was obviously not a satisfactory state of affairs.
So Randall stayed on the boat to make sure that nothing else happened while I went ashore and with Dan and Kathy, completed the “scavenger hunt” (as Lois from Wind Quest perceptively called it) that was the immigration/port clearance process. We had to find a particular bank and buy $15-worth of stamps for each person which the immigration officer, in his office at the small, nearby airport, laboriously glued into our passports. I then left Kathy and Dan to explore the town of Bocas further while I returned to help move Tregoning to a better place in the anchorage that had just been vacated by another boat.
That should have been a straightforward procedure except that when Randall used the electric windlass to pull up the anchor (carefully avoiding further impact on the rock/coral) the “up” switch would not turn off, threatening to break the windlass, anchor chain, or the bow fittings. We quickly turned off the main switch to the windlass and then had to circle around while he figured out what had gone wrong. There is a manual override to the windlass making it fairly easy to drop the anchor without turning the windlass back on, so we repositioned ourselves and dropped the anchor. Things looked good until we tried to set it by pulling against it in reverse and realized that the anchor was slowly dragging so that we were getting too close to another boat. This is annoying at the best of times but the thought of having to manually raise the anchor and all the chain to reset it was not a good one. Luckily, when we stopped pulling against the anchor because there was little wind we were not actually dragging and had some time to try to sort things out.
Randall took the windlass switches apart and managed to find that the “down” switch was fine but the “up” was broken. Since we needed the windlass for pulling the anchor up but could manage without it for letting the anchor down, Randall replaced the broken one with the “down” switch. All seemed to be going fine with this operation until I went to adjust the battery bank that we were using only to find that the large, “house-bank” that should power everything except starting the engine was apparently dead. This was not good and an annoying situation seemed to be getting really bad. Luckily, after turning everything off that used power (including the fridge) Randall managed to track the problem down to a breaker in the engine room that had done its job and been tripped when too much strain was put on the windlass when the up switch was stuck on. We had not noticed it before when the engine was running and the alternator was charging the starter battery from which the electrical systems were drawing power but if not noticed, the starter battery would have quickly been drained once the engine was turned off. Much to our relief, once the breaker was reset the boat’s whole electrical system came back to life as normal. Randall completed his test of the switch of the windlass switches and we could relax further as we raised the anchor, reset it, and found that it did not drag at all on the subsequent test. We rested that evening very grateful that we were anchored in a much better place and that things had worked out in the end. We would have to add a new switch to the long list of items that we needed to purchase for the boat. But one is supposed to be able to get almost anything in Panama (or at least in the City) so some serious marine shopping would be one of the activities that we could look forward to in the weeks ahead.
Now that we have made it to Panama it is time to finish this “Florida to Panama” blog (the photo album is overflowing). When we left Florida we expected to be in Panama by April so our much enjoyed stops in Jamaica and all the western Caribbean islands have made it much longer than expected. Our current plan is to stay at various places on the Caribbean coast of Panama until September and traverse the Panama Canal then. We will spend the rest of the year visiting the islands on the Pacific side of Panama and the coast and islands of Costa Rica. We are considering going to the Galapagos in the spring and then continuing with the long loop to Hawaii and then round to Alaska or British Colombia in the summer. There is still much that we need to prepare to make the latter, ambitious passages but we are gaining in confidence and should have plenty of time to make our preparations over the next six to nine months in Central America. Anyway, our plans may change again by then!
Look for a new blog soon on the Tregoning blog page that will be titled “Panama and Costa Rica” (remember that you may have to renew your request for email notification of updates on the new blog if you use that function). We will try to update the blog when we move or, at least, every couple of weeks but we will try to spare you most of the news of routine life when we are working on the boat or staying in one place for several weeks at a time. Our trip from Florida to Panama was much more diverse and interesting than we had ever imagined and we hope to be able to report on many more exciting places and activities in the months ahead.
June 16, 2009
Reading various world cruising books there is not a lot of encouragement to visit Nicaragua. Given the unstable relationship the country has had with the U.S. over recent decades, many shallow reefs near-shore, and limited facilities, the mainland is not a particularly popular cruising destination. However, about 30 miles east of the southern end of the Nicaraguan mainland there are two islands that have always been quite popular stops in the southwest Caribbean and which, like San Andrés is to Colombia and Hawaii is the U.S., are island vacation destinations for Nicaragua. Neither Big Corn Island (population of 8,000) nor Little Corn Island (with many fewer residents) is an official port of entry for Nicaragua and one of our books emphasized that a permit to visit them must be obtained in Managua after officially checking-in to the one port of entry on the Caribbean coast (El Bluff). Another book, however, suggested that “port officials at Big Corn welcome yachts in transit to stop for rest, shelter, fuel, and to visit the island” and would meet you at the main pier. Our plan was to visit Little Corn Island, for which the entry procedures were even less clear, so we knew that there was a chance that we would be told to leave or to check-in at Big Corn.
So early on Sunday morning (June 14th) our three boats carefully retraced our route back out through the Albuquerque reef (following the incoming trails shown on our chart-plotters) and then motored steadily west for 10 hours. It was about a 70 miles passage with no wind to assist us but a slightly favorable current and it was a beautiful sunny day with some spectacular cloud formations on the horizon. We anchored among fishing boats of various sizes in Pelican Bay on the southwest side of Little Corn Island. Without the protection of a fringing reef, we expected to roll badly in the swell curving around the south end of the island but having pulled in a close to shore as possible, it was not too bad.
As we surveyed the harbor scene with people in boats or on the beach enjoying the Sunday afternoon, a brightly colored panga (a long, narrow, outboard-motor boat with a relatively high bow) pulled alongside with a couple and young daughter who, in perfect English, welcomed us to their island. We were not sure that many restaurants would be open on a Sunday evening but any plans to look around ashore were nixed by a very heavy downpour.
We had been attracted to Little Corn Island because Dan and Kathy had made the complex series of flight connections and final ferry ride to get there for a vacation with their sons about six years ago and had shown the rest of us glorious pictures of the beautiful beaches and rustic cabins in which they stayed. Once we got to shore the next morning, it was very interesting to hear about what they remembered and what had generally been improved. This revisit was not a disappointment. There are no motor vehicles or roads on the two-mile long island with all transportation either by boat or foot. A concrete pathway along the harbor shoreline and to the center of the island (part of which had panels that residents had decorated with paint and mosaic work) was new since Dan and Kathy’s previous visit and they were impressed that many of the houses were freshly painted with new fences and a generally cleaner and more prosperous look.
We were the only cruisers but there were many visitors from all over the world staying in the small hotels and cabins around Pelican Bay or on the long beaches of the eastern and northern shores of the island. One man who was looking for people to take out fishing, quickly identified us as cruisers because we were already tanned (most people came to get a tan) and no doubt (although he did not specifically say it) because (with the exception of Jamie) we were older than most visitors who, one the whole, looked like students enjoying a low budget tropical paradise.
In addition to the dozen or so places to stay, there were many small restaurants, a couple of small grocery stores, a school, and two scuba-diving operations. We did not see the police station or the two policemen that supposedly work there. In fact, we never saw anyone in uniform or who might be officious enough to question our presence without Nicaraguan clearance and were only treated with great hospitality and friendliness by all the locals with whom we talked. Pangas with large outboard motors flew past our boats delivering visitors from the airport 10 miles south on Big Corn Island and we half expected that one of these boats would bring an official who had heard about our three sailboats without Nicaraguan courtesy flags.
We wandered across the south end of the island on Monday morning to see the beautiful beach there and the cabins at Casa Iguana where Dan and Kathy had stayed on their previous visit. Jamie went diving in the afternoon while Kathy and I walked across the central part of the island to the north coast and then returned via the long beach to the east. We returned to Casa Iguana for a good dinner that was served family-style to about 30 people and Jamie pointed out several people who had been diving with him. Somewhat smitten by the opportunity to dive (or was it the beautiful, young French woman working in the diving center?) Jamie went out again to a different reef the next afternoon. Randall was nursing a sore back that day so he had to miss the morning walk that the rest of us took to the low hill at the center of the island. There we climbed the ladder on the light and look-out tower next to the wind generator and radio antenna. Given that the skies had finally cleared and the sun was shining, the views across the island, bay, and over to Big Corn Island were particularly spectacular.
In addition to the single large wind generator, there were also some solar panels at the top of the hill and some hotels obviously had their own generators. There was a large water storage tank on the hill although it was not obvious whether this was filled only by rainwater or was supplemented from a well and/or with reverse osmosis treatment of sea water. It certainly did not appear that water or electricity were squandered on this small island and it seemed that fuel supplies had to be obtained from Big Corn Island, collected by individual boats or delivered by the supply ships. We watched a young man laboriously roll a large barrel of liquid (possibly fuel for a generator) along a dirt path across the island and sympathized with his likely frustration at the absence of mechanized vehicles on the island.
With its lack of motor vehicles, beautiful palm tree-lined beaches, and relaxed and friendly atmosphere, it was easy to see why Little Corn Island was becoming a popular tourist destination for those looking for a tropical paradise on a low-budget and rustic style. If, as Dan and Kathy felt, the residents are becoming more prosperous and the number of hotels and restaurants is increasing, it will be interesting to see whether the island manages to retain its laid-back charm over the coming years or whether more commercial interests from outside will be allowed to prevail and risk overloading the place with more sophisticated developments. We felt privileged to be able to stay there for a few days and enjoy this beautiful outpost hoping that our travels will take us to many more places where the balance between booming tourism, local needs, and, ecological stability will (at least appear to) be so successfully maintained.
June 13, 2009
By mid June, it was hard to believe that we had been traveling with Dan, Kathy, and Jamie for almost three months. While we had met many friendly and interesting cruisers on our travels, we occasionally met others who reminded us how very lucky we were to find such compatible cruising companions. Not only did we enjoy each other’s company and have common interests in where we went and what we did there but we seemed to share many values and opinions about things in general which makes communal life much more relaxing. I sometimes wondered what we contributed to the group other than general enthusiasm and periodic brownies but we certainly benefited from help with sailing techniques (Jamie had been a sailing instructor for many years), equipment, bird identification, etc. We also felt much more confident about visiting remote places with two other boats than we might have done on our own and we quickly shared our discoveries about each new town we visited, such as the best places for shopping, internet access, laundry, etc.
Occasionally we all vicariously enjoyed the activities in which only some of us participated. A good example of this was kite-surfing lessons in San Andrés. The winds were perfect most of the time we were there and several local people zoomed back and forth across the bay, periodically making tremendous leaps above the water. They made it look so easy and exciting, so Jamie (who in addition to much dinghy sailing has also wind-surfed) decided to throw caution (and plenty of money) to the wind and signed up for some kite-surfing lessons. The first 2 hour lesson involved standing in waist-deep water and learning to fly the kite. The kite is an inflated aerofoil to which you are attached by a robust harness and steer using a bar attached to the two control lines. The second lesson involved being dragged through the water by the kite without a board. The main techniques he practiced were using lift from the kite to get started and then stopping again. To those of us watching from our boats, this looked particularly unpleasant and a guaranteed way to swallow a lot of water but Jamie made very good progress and seemed to be a short step from whistling past us on a board.
The first lesson with the board, however, did not go quite as smoothly, partly because the wind was very strong making the kite hard to control. Frustratingly, taking-off on the board from a reclining position in the water was much more challenging than the instructor made it appear and had the added discomfort of dragging Jamie feet-first such that water flooded up his nose. Anxious to capture his first ride on film, we watched from the boat but mostly succeeded in photographing the instructor. Eventually we were puzzled to see them get into Jamie’s dinghy with the kite still aloft and head towards shallow water around a nearby island. Apparently the wind was so strong that they could not get the kite fully under control while in deep water and needed to be in the shallows so that the instructor could take over and ride the board back to the shore. Being thwarted so close to riding the board and having swallowed and inhaled so much seawater was particularly discouraging to Jamie, and with light winds forecast for the coming days, he decided to continue his instruction elsewhere and so was ready to leave San Andrés with Dan and Kathy a couple of days later.
They took off for the reef and two small islands at Albuquerque about 25 miles south of San Andres on Wednesday (June 10th) and enjoyed some good snorkeling there. There were some fishing camps on one of the islands and the other had an outpost of the Colombian Navy with about 15 young men who were pleased to have any visitors. They also met up again with Eddie and Glenn on Tothill who had been in San Andrés with us and met the lovely Colombian couple that was living with them. Between them they took some of the navy guys out in their dinghies to spearfish and then shared a couple of dinners with them.
Meanwhile, after I had returned from Panama on Friday afternoon, Randall and I arranged with the agent, Mr. Rene, to pick up our Zarpe (the essential exit document that one must have before arriving by boat in a new country). We also went to the Sunrise Hotel to pick up a package of mail that we had requested to have sent there from our mail service provider in Florida. Unfortunately it had not yet arrived so we spent about an hour making arrangements for them to forward the package to us in Panama as soon as we could email them a suitable address. Considering that the package included some important correspondence from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service we really hoped that the forwarding plan would work out.
We left the anchorage at San Andrés early on Saturday morning and motor-sailed in light winds to Albuquerque. After carefully picking our route through the reef to anchor between the two islands, near Sea Star and Wind Song, we put the dinghy in the water and went ashore to present our paperwork. As at Roncador, there was no official clearing in and out of Albuquerque but the commanding naval officer made a note in his book of our critical information (names, boat name, length, Zarpe and registration numbers, number of engines, etc.). The few men that we met were friendly but not quite as excited and chatty as those on Roncador. We subsequently found out that they had stayed up late having dinner with the cruisers (and enjoying the translation skills of the Colombian couple from Tothill) and so were perhaps rather more tired than usual this day and were not as interested in attempting much English/Spanish conversation. Tothill had left that morning so we had just missed them.
We spent the afternoon snorkeling with Jamie and Kathy, first in an interesting area just outside the reef where there were deeper gullies between fingers of coral and then on a shallower area inside the reef. It was good to get in the water but with rain clouds rolling all around us, we declined a visit to a third snorkeling site. That evening, we enjoyed a pot-luck dinner on Sea Star while the rain poured around us, finally letting-up enough for us to scurry back to Tregoning and get the dinghy back up on deck ready for the next morning’s early departure to another country.
June 12, 2009
Leaving Randall aboard Tregoning in San Andrés, on Tuesday morning (June 9th), I flew to Panama City to catch up with one of my very good friends from Gainesville, Kaoru. The only slight hitch in my journey was that I had not understood the announcement at the departure gate in San Andrés airport when they had told us to purchase our Tourist Cards for Panama. Luckily, when I arrived without it at the immigration desk in Panama City, it was a relatively simple procedure to go to the Copa Airlines baggage office where I could buy one for $5. On my return trip to San Andrés, I learned from this experience and kept asking where I could get the card for Colombia ($17) until the appropriate person showed up at the departure gate to sell them. It is basically a tourist tax but I knew that I would need the card for when we departed from San Andrés by boat.
Randall was really abandoned while I was away because Sea Star and Wind Song left on Wednesday morning to sail to Cayo Albuquerque about 25 miles south of San Andrés. Several other boats left as well so he must have started to feel pretty lonely in the harbor. We plan to catch up with Sea Star and Wind Song over the next few days, if they are still snorkeling in Albuquerque, if they have moved to the Nicaraguan Corn Islands, or once we sail into one of the coastal areas of Panama.
Once I left the Panama City airport, following Kaoru’s instructions I got a taxi to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) at Ancon, their main campus in Panama City. We met at the auditorium to attend a seminar and I was impressed with the large number of people in attendance. There are a few researchers and many support staff who work full-time at STRI but being the beginning of the summer semester at many US universities the population of researchers and students visiting STRI had recently increased. From there, Kaoru and I and her graduate student, Gerard (I’m sorry if I spelled it incorrectly) drove to Gamboa to the house of a good friends and colleagues of Kaoru, Joe and Helene. They were very gracious hosts living in one of the many large houses that were built by the Americans for staff who worked on the Panama Canal. Gamboa is inland of Panama City (which is at the Pacific end of the Canal) at the southern entrance of the Canal into Gatun Lake. The latter is an artificial lake created by the damming of the Chagres River through which the Canal runs. The headwaters of the river are in the hills near Gamboa and the dam and mouth of the river are on the Caribbean side of the lake. One of the islands in this lake, Barro Colorado Island (BCI), was a hill top that was isolated by the creation of Gatun Lake and is run as the main research site for STRI. Access is strictly regulated and there are many long-term research plots on the island. This was where Kaoru had been conducting various research projects over the last 24 years and was one of the main attractions of my visit, apart, of course, from seeing Kaoru!
Kaoru hosted a delicious dinner (including vegetarian sushi) for 8 people on Tuesday night and we then got up early on Wednesday to catch the STRI boat from Gamboa to BCI. The boat was full of workers, many of whom slept on the trip but I was very excited as this was my first passage along part of the Panama Canal. Once we arrived and Kaoru had shown me some of the facilities on site, we set off for a fairly long hike across most of the island. It rained on and off but once we were under the thick, rainforest canopy it was not too wet although it was steamy hot. The well used trails were protected from erosion by concrete block stepping stones and stairs and they were well marked, so it did not exactly feel very wild underfoot but the protection that the research site has afforded the animal populations means that there were plenty of creatures to see. After lunch we climbed a very tall observation tower (which was narrow and swaying a bit so not for the faint of heart) which gave us excellent views over the tree canopy and the Canal channel through the lake.
During our hike and climb we saw howler monkeys, red-tailed squirrels, and agoutis (large, tail-less and small-eared rabbit-like rodents), a brightly colored poison dart frog, and numerous birds. The latter included keel-billed toucans. red-lored Amazon parrots, spotted antbirds, crested guans (almost turkey-sized birds high in the trees), tinamous (chicken-sized, ground-dwelling birds), and a large, very white raptor which might have been a grey hawk. We continued our bird-watching back in Gamboa that evening and the next morning when Kaoru and I walked up an observation tower that had spectacular views of the Canal and the headwaters of the Chagres River. Additional birds that we saw included: collared aracari (a small toucan), various tanagers and fly catchers, blue dacnis, a violaceous trogon, and several yellow-rumped caciques which build colonies of nests that hang down from tree branches. Amazon parrots proved to be quite noisy in the residential areas in the mornings and evenings so they reminded me of the morning chorus of chickens in Jamaica. I also saw some tamarin monkeys in Gamboa and as we returned from the tower there, we crossed a couple of columns of leaf-cutter ants, laboriously carrying their relatively huge pieces of leaves back to their nests. The residents of the neighborhood were also excited when some huge (6 inch-long) brightly colored caterpillars were noticed on one of the shrubs. I never did learn their name but they were impressive and presumably produced a large moth or butterfly.
Of course, as a talented botanist, Kaoru showed me many, many of the amazing plants of the area including the various Psychotria species that she is studying (how can so many species in the same genus closely co-exist in the forest?) and the tree upon which she had started her graduate work 24 years ago. The latter, Tachigalia veriscolor is a suicidal species in that each tree only flowers once and then dies. There is some synchrony to the flowering (about 20% of the mature population flower at the same time) and maturity is only reached when the tree is quite large. This is an unusual life pattern and Kaoru has been monitoring the growth of seedling that germinated after a particular flowering event in 1987. Some of these 24 year-old seedling were only 12 – 24 inches tall so they are incredibly slow-growing and can tolerate great shade, waiting patiently for a gap to open up in the forest canopy. I had heard Kaoru talk about this research so it was very interesting to see the plants and places to which she had devoted so much time.
I had a splendid time during my two full days in Panama and I tried to learn many things that I could pass along to Randall and the others when we eventually get there by boat. It was very interesting to see what parts of the Panama Canal would be like and we saw several ships and one sailboat pass through. The water was very muddy as they are doing a lot of dredging in anticipation of widening the canal but it will be a major task to widen the locks. We finished my visit with a delicious buffet dinner for Kaoru, Sachi (her 13 year-old daughter), Gerard and me at the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve Resort on Thursday night and then I was delivered to the airport on Friday morning for an uneventful return to San Andrés. It was not only very good to see my wonderful friend Kaoru but the trip really made me excited about the prospect of our longer visit to Panama in the coming weeks.
Photos to follow when we next have internet access…which could be a little while from now…
June 09, 2009
I am flying to Panama this afternoon (June 9th) to meet my friend Kaoru and see some of her research sites at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. I am returning to San Andres on Friday and then we will start sailing south again via Albuquerque to the Caribbean coast of Panama (not sure where as that depends on the winds). Randall is staying in San Andres so I hope to be able to show him some things that I have learned when we get back to Panama.
June 05, 2009
By Friday (June 5th) we were still in San Andrés and given the tropical wave passing through the SW Caribbean, which may develop into a tropical depression, we decided to wait there for another week before sailing south to Albuquerque Cay (another Colombian, uninhabited, reef island with excellent snorkeling) and then Panama. An unpleasant line of squalls between us and Panama prompted us to decide not to rush ahead and get caught in those. The harbor in San Andres is well protected from waves in all wind directions and there is plenty of room to keep away from other vessels if the winds do pick up significantly. The winds had mostly been between 15 and 25 knots during the five days we had been here so we were generating plenty of electricity. I will fly to Panama City next week to see my UF friend, Kaoru, who is in Panama for 10 days and I hope that we will be able to visit some of the field sites where she has done many years of ecological research.
We have been getting to know the island and town of San Andrés quite well. On Tuesday (June 2nd) the five of us rented a 6-seater golf cart and chugged our way (rather slowly) around the perimeter of the island and over the central hill (about 200 ft elevation). We stopped at a museum of local life that consisted of a well preserved house from the 19th Century that contained an eclectic collection of items ranging from iron hair combs that were heated in embers to a telex machine! We had a very nice 17-year old guide who spoke fairly good English to our small group. After showing us the house, separate kitchen, cistern, and bathroom (with conveniently adjacent banana trees, the dried leaves of which were used for toilet paper), the final part of the tour was a dancing display. Our guide was joined by another who had been leading a fairly raucous group of Colombians and the two guides gyrated their way through what seemed to be a very modern type of Spanish/island music. It was not obvious to us what the connection was with the house but the show seemed to be particularly appreciated by the male Colombian visitors.
At the south end of the island we stopped to see the Blow Hole which was a 10-inch diameter hole in the coral rock about 20 yards from the water’s edge. Kathy boldly volunteered to stand on the mat next to it while the rest of us took photos. She was blasted with air as smaller waves slammed into the narrow tunnel underneath the rock and then was drenched with water as a particularly large wave spouted all the way through. It was the most impressive blow hole we have seen so far and was suitably feted with surrounding gift stands, cafés, and the inevitable hustlers wanting to take our photos for us.
We had a good lunch at a restaurant by the beach and then crept in the golf-cart up to the high point of the island. There should have been spectacular views of the bright turquoise waters inside the reef but there did not seem to be any suitable gaps in the line of buildings where one could stop and enjoy the view. It seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity for a view-point. While we had the cart we did some grocery shopping and then drove several times around the complex series of one-way streets in the main town, eventually starting to get our bearings as we rounded the same corners repeatedly. We also managed to find an optician and a dentist who could respectively help Kathy get her glasses and a cracked tooth fixed, so it was a productive day. Given our previous experiences with the Jamaican van and Providencian moped, it was also amazing that we were able to return the golf cart without suffering a flat tire or any other sort of break-down.
We have temporarily joined the Club Nautico at which we can dock our dinghies and also use their showers, pool, etc, and I have signed up for a week of wireless internet access at the large and fairly luxurious Sunrise Hotel which overlooks the harbor. We are steadily eating our way around the restaurants that have been recommended to us (there are many to chose from) and eventually we may succumb to the so-called “shopaholics delight” of the many, many stores selling clothes, jewelry, gifts, etc, to purchase some new shorts for Randall. We are becoming increasingly fond of the town and island the longer we stay here but are still a bit puzzled as to what particular aspects of the place inspired our cruising guide’s authors to say that “San Andrés is as beautiful an island as will be found anywhere in the world.” I am wondering if the view of the palm-covered islands, clear waters, and reefs as seen from an airplane will give me a clue.
May 31, 2009
If the 6:45 am meeting to go on our hike had seemed painfully early to Jamie, our planned departure from Isla Providencia was at a savage 5:45 am. The passage between the islands is about 60 miles and good light is important for negotiating the entrance to the anchorage at San Andrés. We set off as the sun was rising behind some clouds and found that our small flotilla included a fourth boat, the Swiss vessel, Riga II. With steady NE trade winds of 10-15 knots we had an excellent beam-reach sail to the south in 6-8 ft seas. Even though we initially lead the group, Sea Star soon plowed ahead and by the time we started to see San Andrés looming on the hazy horizon, they were already preparing to turn into the channel that leads to the harbor. Although the harbor is at the northeast corner of the 7 mile-long island (it is less than 2 miles from east to west), it is protected by a reef that runs about half way down the east side of the island. Thus, the port can only be approached by passing about 3 miles to its south and then rounding the reef and returning northwest through the well marked channel.
San Andrés is much lower in average elevation than Providencia so it is not as striking to see on the horizon but there are several charming, palm-covered islands on the approach that suggest why it is such a popular tourist destination. And popular it is. San Andrés is to mainland Colombia what Hawaii is to the mainland US and as soon as we could see the town this was evident in the shape of many multistory buildings and busy beaches. Large jet planes destined for Colombia or Central America rose from the substantial airport and as soon as one was inside the reef, small boats and jet-skis were buzzing around between the smaller cays. The atmosphere in town was much like Nassau when the cruise ships are in port and the occupants of the half-dozen anchored cruising boats were of minor consequence to the residents compared to the hotels full of visitors.
So other than their locations in the SW Caribbean, there appear to be few similarities between Providencia and San Andrés. The islands share a common history which included colonization by English Puritans in 1629 and later by planters and woodcutters who brought slaves from Jamaica. Spain was awarded the islands in 1786 but in 1821 they became part of Colombia. Until the 1980s, there was little input from the mainland Colombian government and the residents remained English-speaking. More recently, however, the schools were required to start teaching in Spanish so it was interesting that in Providencia older people are likely to talk in English whereas some of the younger people cannot. In San Andrés, the influence of so many tourists, particularly from mainland Colombia, made it seem that Spanish was more widely spoken, although street vendors would certainly switch to English if their Spanish chatter did not elicit a response.
In addition to the hotels, other notable features seen as one approaches San Andrés are the several large wrecks sitting high on the reef. In various states of disintegration, these forlorn ships testify to the dangers of the breaking waves that lick all around the east side of the island. We listened with interest as Dan explained on the VHF radio where the channel started and that it was clearly marked. We also heard him being questioned by some port officials who were following him into the channel in a small boat. Their questions were all in Spanish and Dan did an excellent job of understanding and responding with the requested information about the boat, his papers, and his last port of entry. Expecting to receive the same interrogation, we wrote down his answers and practiced a few relevant sentences.
As we reached the entrance to the port channel, we started the engine, and gently turned into the wind so that we could drop the sails. I briefly went forward to help Randall with the mainsail and then returned to the helm to swing us back around downwind towards the gap in the reef. We then noticed that particularly pungent diesel fumes were being blown back over us and realized that the engine temperature was much higher than normal. The gauge has occasionally got stuck before so our initial reaction was fairly mild but we soon knew that something serious was wrong when the engine warning light came on and the temperature gauge remained pegged at the maximum level. Peering over the side of the boat, it appeared that there was seawater bubbling out with the exhaust gases but when we found that there was a small fountain of water squirting out of the small plastic container of freshwater that is part of the internal engine cooling system (that should be cooled by the stream of seawater being pumped past it) we knew that the engine was severely overheating. Of course, all this was occurring as we were slowly negotiating our way around the line of breaking waves at the end of the reef and trying to stay in the deep-water channel.
It became obvious that we had to turn off the engine and looking at the chart our options were to head back out to sea away from all the shallow water or try to sail as far up the channel as we could to find somewhere safe where we could drop the anchor. Luckily, the wind was such that we could probably sail most of the way up the channel so we quickly unfurled the jib and partly raised the mainsail. We had to sail fairly close-hauled to stay on the east side of the channel and not get pushed onto the shallows on the west side. The only potential problem was that to get into the area where Sea Star and Riga II had anchored we had to pinch around the east side of the shallows surrounding a small mangrove-covered island. Having heard us describe our problem on the VHF radio, Dan gave us very helpful directions of where we could leave the marked channel and have enough water depth to get around the island but it was soon apparent that we would not quite make it far enough east as the wind was tending to swing around towards our bow. We debated about dropping the anchor where we were but then two dinghies came rushing to our rescue, Dan and Kathy from Sea Star and Gabby and Richard from Riga II.
They made an impressive tug-boat team. With Kathy hauling on a line attached to our bow, they plowed ahead pulling us to the east while Gabby and Richard pushed our stern around towards the west. And, thus, we limped into the anchorage and once in a good position ahead of Riga II and Sea Star we dropped the anchor and profusely thanked our rescuers. It was very good to be close to shore, and looking around at all the fishing and pleasure boats we started to feel optimistic that we should be able to get help with our diesel engine if needed. Although Providencia would be a friendly and pleasant place to be stuck waiting for parts or repairs, San Andrés undoubtedly had many more facilities for such work, and if we had to wait for a while, I would be able to fly directly to Panama to meet my friend Kaoru. Of course, once we were more relaxed we thought with admiration about the more adventurous cruisers we have met on our travels, such as John and Janet on Ventoso and Bob and Kathy on Easy Go, who manage to get into every anchorage under sail, having no engines in their boats.
As we were sailing up the channel, we expected to be questioned by the port officials so we practiced saying in Spanish that our engine was broken. But for whatever reason (maybe their heard about our difficulties on the radio and decided to stay out of our way), Sea Star was the only boat that was approached. Even Jamie, who calmly and skillfully sailed Wind Song into the anchorage after us, was not contacted by the officials and it was left to Dan to convey to us all that the marine agent, Mr. Rene, would meet us at a civilized 9:30 am the next morning to check us in to San Andrés. Given that we could not go ashore until then, we tidied up the boat but decided to leave the dinghy launch until the next morning.
One problem of anchoring without the engine is that it is difficult to back-down on the anchor to firmly set it in the bottom and to test that it is holding. I snorkeled to look at the anchor and found that it was not particularly well set in the sea grass on the bottom. In fact, it had already dragged a narrow trench of about 12 ft long although this could have been before we managed to get the sails down. Since we were fairly close to Riga II and it would be difficult to reposition without the engine if we started to drag towards the shallows behind us, we decided to reinforce the main plow anchor using the good-sized Danforth anchor from our dinghy (it had been the one on my 21 ft sailboat). We did not want to just drop a second anchor from the bow in case the wind swung us around and caused the two anchors to tangle and drag so we tied the Danforth to some floats and swam it out ahead of the boat. We dropped the Danforth and embedded it in the sand ahead of the main anchor and then Randall then swam down the 16 ft to tie a line between the two anchors. Thus, if the main anchor dragged at all, it would also pull on the well set Danforth.
It was interesting to be swimming in an area where so many boats and jet-skis were weaving around but the floats helped make us visible and we were glad that the water obviously flowed steadily through the harbor and seemed reasonably clean. When we were back on the boat we made sure that we had good marks on land to see if we were moving. Although we swung back and forth a fair amount in the strengthening wind (which was 20 – 25 knots by the next morning), we did not appear to drag any further. Some of our strange behavior was noticed aboard Sea Star prompting Dan to ask us the next morning what the heck we were up to with the floats. We were very tired by the time we were finished with everything so the loud music blasting from the hotels and sight-seeing boats did not bother us at all and we actually enjoyed watching the changing colors of the lights on the nearest hotel.
We launched the dinghy on Sunday morning and we all met Mr. Rene at Nene’s Marina to check-in to San Andrés. This also gave us an opportunity to meet and re-thank Gabby and Richard. Randall had been reading the engine manual to evaluate what might be the problem and Mr. Rene suggested that he help us on Monday if we needed to get new parts or hire a mechanic. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the town which slowly came to life late on Sunday morning. Dan and Kathy remembered some things from their previous visit 10 years ago but much had also changed. We found all the restaurants that Rel had told us about and stopped for an excellent pizza at the Italian place that she had recommended. For the rest of the afternoon, the others worked on getting wireless internet access, while Randall started to investigate the engine problem.
Although we had thought that salt water was being pumped through the cooling system all right, he soon discovered that the impellor (that moves the water through the pipes) had completely disintegrated. Luckily, we had spares on board and once this item was replaced a test of the engine not only showed that it was still functioning all right but the temperature seemed to remain stable even when we put a load on it by reversing against the anchors. It may be too early to be absolutely certain that everything is cured (we did not want to pull up the anchors and motor around the bay yet) but we rested more soundly that night knowing that the engine condition was looking much better and that we had been able to set the anchor more firmly.
May 29, 2009
The population of Providencia is about 4,800 and most people live by the road that circumnavigates the island and they all seem to ride mopeds. We really liked the friendly atmosphere and lack of obvious dominance by the tourism industry. While there are some tourists staying in hotels on the west side of the island, particularly those enjoying the good diving opportunities there, as in Port Antonio the locals did not take long to guess that we had arrived on sailboats. As someone later suggested, it felt a bit like a mid-west US town from the 1950s. The place is small enough that everyone seems to know what is going on and know most of the other people there.
When we went to collect our passports from Mr. Bush on Wednesday (May 27th) he took us to the Immigration Office that Randall and I had visited the afternoon before. As Randall was beginning to explain to Mr. Bush about the letter we had left for Marcela, I looked around the office and noticed John sitting behind a desk. He had arrived from Roncador that morning and the woman who was stamping and signing our passports at that very moment was his beloved Marcela. Introductions were made and we were profusely thanked for delivering the letter even though it turns out that he could have done it himself.
Mr. Bush kept the pieces of Jamie’s gooseneck to show to the welder, Mr. Bing, and after exploring the three small grocery stores Jamie and I dropped off some dirty clothes next to the Bamboo Seafood Restaurant for Rel’s mother to launder for us. That afternoon we took two of our dinghies to a small beach on Santa Catalina Island from which we climbed the stairs to the ruins of Fort Warwick which has a commanding view of the harbor. Jamie, Kathy, and I then walked further along the trails on the west side of the island to Morgan’s Head, a rock that supposedly looks like the profile of the dreaded Captain Morgan whose pirates used the islands as a base to attack Spanish treasure ships. Either Captain Morgan had a really tiny nose or the rock has suffered some erosion but it was a pleasant trail with beautiful painted tiles along the way that carried place names or pithy messages about the beauty of the place.
We had originally intended to snorkel from the beach but we arrived back at our dinghies just as a very excited group of elementary school-aged children streamed down the stairs onto the beach. They were not shy about trying to climb on the dinghies or use the binoculars that were dangling around Dan’s neck so we decided to leave them to have their fun while we explored the rest of the island. In the end, we went all the way around Santa Catalina, surfing back into Santa Isabel with the wind behind us and passing under the small bridge on Lovers’ Lane.
The next morning the five of us met at 8 am at the hardware store where one could rent mopeds. It turned out that it was lucky that we arrived early (the owners showed up around 8:20 am) as they only had three mopeds and others arriving after us were disappointed. We had hoped to have four bikes so that Randall and I could have our own but I deferred to his greater motor-biking experience and let him drive. We set off clockwise around Isla Providencia keeping an eye out for tricky cracks in the concrete road but letting the other moped riders look out for themselves. After stopping on the east side to admire the waves breaking on the barrier reef, we followed a road that was very much under construction (or major repair) down to Manchineel Beach at the south end of the island. Randall had noted that our bike had become very unstable by then and when we stopped to look at a bright blue lizard he realized that the front tire was completely flat (apparently a recurring theme for our rented transportation). The hardware store owners had given us a phone number to call but we had no phone so that was of little help. A fellow riding by with a large drinking water bottle stopped and offered to bring his friend who had an air pump. Sure enough a few minutes later, he returned with a friend who had an old bicycle tire pump which worked splendidly. Some water was splashed on the tire to see if a leak was apparent and seeing nothing we continued down to the beach having thanked our savior. While we were there we got some cold drinks at Roland’s bar, owned by the brother of the fellow who had stopped to help us. He was happy to explain what kinds of meal they could serve us later in the day and with the fresh breeze from the east, it was a nice place to relax.
However, we soon discovered that the tire was flat again and a re-inspection revealed that the tire was not sealed to the rim sufficiently. So with another good pump-up, Randall set off back to the hardware store (about 4 miles away) while the rest of us continued around the island with me riding behind Jamie. Jamie had not ridden a motor bike before so having to return along the narrow concrete strip of the road under construction now with a passenger aboard was quite a baptism of fire but he coped nobly. We stopped to look at Southwest Beach and I took over briefly driving our moped but Jamie soon learned that being the passenger is even more nerve-wracking. I did not think I was too bad at driving but we switched back again after lunch.
We stopped to eat in Fresh Water Bay, originally selecting the appropriately named “Sea Star” restaurant but their cook was sick so we were redirected to Miss Elma’s by the beach. During our good (but slow) lunch there were several heavy showers of rain but it had stopped by the time we continued back towards Santa Isabel. On the way we met Randall coming towards us on the now-repaired bike. Back in Santa Isabel, Jamie and I walked over to see Rel to ask her to arrange a guide to take us up The Peak the next day. The fellow at Roland’s had offered to take us but the logistics of getting there from our end of the island seemed complicated and expensive compared to the package than Rel put together. Dan decided he had biked enough, so with me driving Kathy, we returned for a leisurely swim at South West Beach. Jamie and I used our masks and saw a couple of small octopuses hiding in the stack of empty conch shells just off the beach.
On our return to Santa Isabel, as we got to the top of the road from South West Beach we found that the main road along the west side of the island was closed with a soldier standing guard. Another official explained somewhat apologetically that the road was closed because of the crab migration. When we had approached South West Beach earlier we had seen a large number of crabs crossing the road, some of which were being squashed by passing traffic. Apparently these crabs live in the hills and migrate to the sea at this time of year to shed their eggs after there has been some rain. We were glad to hear that they were so protective of this wildlife that we were happy to return to Santa Isabel going the longer way around the island. This phenomenon also explained why many of the benches in Providencia were decorated with pictures of crabs.
When we picked up our impressively clean laundry, Rel let us know that she had finally been able to make our arrangements and we would be picked up the next morning at the dinghy dock at 6:45 am. Jamie is not a “morning person” so this was a rude shock to him but we knew that it would be very hot later in the day so we agreed. The others wished us well but decided that the hike up the 1,200 ft (360 m) hill would be a bit more work in the tropical heat than they would enjoy. Our reticent taxi driver delivered us to Bottom House (the community near Manchineel Beach) after picking up our guide, Stanley, on the way.
Stanley was an athletic 29 year-old native of Providencia who was an excellent guide. Having established that we were pretty good walkers, we set off up the unmarked trail between some houses and he showed us some orchids growing in a large kapok tree. He also pointed out an acacia shrub that has large thorns which are inhabited by certain ants. Aphids also live in the thorns using food from the plant and the ants feed on the aphids’ honeydew. The ants, however, protect the plant by aggressively attacking anything that lands on the shrub, thus protecting it from herbivores. Randall had previously explained to us this interesting association of insects and plant but he had not added the local details that Stanley revealed. Pirates were supposed to have planted the acacia around the coast of Providencia to deter visitors and had used the plant with its thorns and viciously biting ants as a tool of torture. Jamie managed to be bitten a couple of times and testified to the potential effectiveness of such methods of persuasion.
We were soon walking up a dry stream bed or “gully” and through some very dry cattle fields. The main rains come in November and December but there would be more rain in the summer than the proceeding six months. Thus, it was very dry in Providencia and everyone was excited about the rain that we had seen the day before and a brief shower overnight. The island has one reservoir, which we saw on our hike but most people also rely on rain cisterns and water tanks on their roofs, and these were getting low. The grass was parched and most of the lowlands looked very brown. We assumed that these would be the conditions of our hike but in fact the path climbed up one of the gullies in the shade of lush trees and to the sound of many frogs. There were a few pools along the trail where we saw the loud, brown frogs whose collective noise, lots of plopping sounds, seemed like something from a science-fiction movie.
Stanley gathered some small ripe mangoes for us to eat as we went and then he found us each a ripe coconut. None of us was carrying a machete, so the latter seemed an unnecessary load for the walk as there seemed no way to open them. But here we got some useful lessons from Stanley on how to break open the husk by dropping a large rock on it (watching out that neither the coconut nor rock fly onto your feet). Once the husk was peeled off, he then soundly tapped around the top of the hard nut with a small stone causing it to crack and break off a lid, just like opening a boiled egg. The milk was refreshing and once gone the shell was smashed against a rock to shatter it enough to eat the flesh. Jamie was willing to break into his own coconut only to find after all his hard work (the initial large rock was very heavy) that the milk was rancid and not safe to use.
The trail was well maintained but the absence of signs or maps would have made it difficult to find and follow without a guide. In a few steep places bamboo hand rails had been installed by “Corilina” the agency that maintains the national parks on these islands. Providencia has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Biosphere site to protect the reef and mountains. This might help attract ecotourism to the island but Stanley had great theories about how UNESCO should improve water catchment in the gully to benefit the local population. Even though it was shaded in the gully there was no air movement and we were going at a steady pace so we were getting pretty hot. Once we reached our first view-point at Meditation Rock, however, the breeze was wonderful, and the view over the airport and eastern side of the island and reef was spectacular. It was a hazy day with low clouds so we could not see very far but the water inside the reef was a glorious turquoise.
From Meditation Rock we walked through the caldera of the extinct volcano that had created the island and we were surrounded by a ring of peaks. The trail here was of dry compact mud passing through ferns and small palms but Stanley told us that it was very wet in the rainy season and from here water percolated through the rock to form freshwater springs near the coast. When we eventually reached the top of The Peak (the highest point on the island) the view was superb, particularly to the south and north, with the boats clearly visible in the harbor. Most of the slopes around us were bright green with trees on which new leaves were appearing and the island looked much more lush from this vantage point than it had from the coast.
After enjoying the views and cool breeze for several minutes we started our return hike, stopping briefly to chat with a woman from Madrid and her guide as they approached the summit. Stanley was thrilled by this encounter because he was able to trade some of his mangoes with the other guide for a joint. Thus, our theme of dope-smoking guides (remembering the charming Captain Rebo on the Rio Grande in Jamaica) continued and Stanley positively skipped down the trail as he enjoyed the fruits of his easy trade.
By the time we met the taxi driver at 11 am, Jamie and I felt well exercised and considered that we had certainly obtained our money’s worth of information and entertainment from Stanley, who we would highly recommend as a guide. Back on the boats, it was decided that if all was well with Jamie’s gooseneck, we would leave the next day which meant that we had to get our exit (Zarpe) papers that afternoon. The welding looked good on Jamie’s gooseneck, which he immediately fitted back into the boom, and Mr. Bush kindly hurried to get our papers processed. As we returned from picking these up, we saw John and said our goodbyes. We enjoyed another good dinner at the Bamboo Seafood Restaurant where we thanked Rel for her work on arranging our hike. She also gave us a list of places where she recommended that we eat in San Andrés (and she was an excellent cook who clearly enjoyed good food) and we finally returned to our boats feeling that we had thoroughly enjoyed Providencia and would be happy to return there.
May 27, 2009
Despite having spent most of the last two weeks in Colombian territory, we had not yet officially checked in to the country and raised our Colombian courtesy flag (that Jamie so kindly got for us when he was in Miami). Having left Low Cay around 11 am on Tuesday (May 26th) we had a delightful sail for the 10 miles south to Providencia with a 10 knot wind from the east (not exactly the absence of wind that had been forecast). Jamie shot ahead of the rest of us as he tested the asymmetrical spinnaker that he had collected from his parents when in Miami. It looked beautiful as it billowed out into its elegant curve of blue, yellow, and white. And it moved him at almost the same speed as the wind which was much faster than the rest of us.
We anchored among six other boats in the protected Santa Catalina harbor and Dan hailed the marina agent Mr. Bush on the VHF radio. We were told that he would contact the Port Captain for us and they would check all of us in at 3 pm. Use of an agent is required (a pretty sweet monopoly for Mr. Bush in Providencia) so we all met on Sea Star but with translations and instructions barked at us by Mr. Bush the paperwork was completed very efficiently. We were then warmly welcomed to the island, many of our questions were quickly answered (where to drop-off garbage, internet access, etc.), and Mr. Bush and the Port Captain disappeared with our passports, which we were to collect from him the next day. One always feels a bit naked after someone takes your passport away but, as Randall pointed out, it used to be routine for hotels in Europe to keep them overnight so one just has to get used to it.
After exchanging our quarantine flag (and, yes, we did have to fill out a form saying that we had not come from an area with Swine ‘flu nor had any symptoms) for the Colombian courtesy flag, we took our dinghies to the town dock. The small town of Santa Isabel was busy with pedestrians and many mopeds. We had heard that this was the best way to see the whole island so we looked forward to renting some mopeds one day. We met Rick, a fellow cruiser who had been at Isla Providencia for three weeks while his wife had had to return to New Jersey to attend a funeral. He was full of useful local information and introduced us to some other cruisers as we stood near the dock.
We got some Colombian Pesos from an ATM and were thrilled to see our bank balance reported in multimillions! With a rate of about 2,000 P to the dollar this was perhaps not so surprising but it was good to have some local currency in our wallets. Randall and I went up to the Immigration Office which was in the government building on the dock hoping to find Marcela and give her the letter from John (on Roncador) but by the time we got there at 4:30 pm there was only one young man in the office. Our primitive Spanish did not seem to work so well with the intricacies of explaining where she was and when she would be back but he seemed to suggest that Marcela had gone to San Andrés. In the end we left the letter with him and hoped that he was not a rival suitor for Marcela’s affections.
The rest of the delightful evening was spent drinking a few beers (or sodas for Jamie and me) at the dock and then crossing the floating wooden walkway and bridge from the main island to Santa Catalina (a smaller island to the north that we had passed to enter the harbor). The walkway was called Lover’s Lane and we saw a charming official sign that (in the English version) insisted that “The Lovers’ Lane is for everyone, get yourself in love also, and take care of it”. Members of a local swimming club were meeting on the boardwalk and swimming in lanes that were marked off by floats next to the walkway.
On Santa Catalina, there was a lovely paved walk by the waterfront that lead out to a headland and beach but we stopped at a small restaurant that we had seen from the boats. The paving stones had an interesting curved pattern carved on them and, especially after dark, these gave an intriguing, and slightly disconcerting, optical illusion that the surface was undulating in 3-dimensions. We had a very slow but excellent dinner at the Bamboo Seafood Restaurant with a glorious backdrop of the harbor surrounded by hills on the main island. The restaurant owner, Rel, spoke good English was very helpful as we started to formulate plans for our expected few days of stay in Providencia while Jamie tried to get the gooseneck fixed on his boom.
May 25, 2009
At this time of year, the trade winds are supposed to blow fairly steadily from the NE at 15 – 20 knots, such that any passage to the south or west should be, well, plain sailing. For whatever reason (and there was much curiosity and speculation about it on the radio weather networks), our stay at Roncador coincided with the beginning of what was predicted to be an eight day lull in the wind. So as much as we enjoyed the reef at Roncador we decided that we did not need to stay until the wind picked up, in which case we could motor west to Isla Providencia any time. Thus, we decided to make the 90 mile run an overnight trip, leaving at 6 pm on Saturday (May 23rd) and planning to arrive once the sun was up on Sunday morning.
Randall, Kathy, and I enjoyed one last snorkeling trip on Saturday morning (stopping at a second small reef patch after a rather too curious reef shark dissuaded us from staying too long at the first place we stopped). Randall and I then made our last visit to the Navy office to say goodbye and thank them for their hospitality. Originally, John (the best English speaker) who actually worked for the immigration office in Providencia not for the navy), had asked if he could get a ride with us to Providencia and we were willing to help him out. But he said, rather sadly, that his boss had told him to stay on Roncador and instead would we carry a letter to his girlfriend, who also worked at the immigration office in Providencia. This made life simpler for us, so we happily agreed to this mission. It was with a tinge of sadness that we said farewell to our navy friends and “Easy”, having enjoyed such a good time at Roncador, despite the rather threatening initial contact.
Just before we pulled up our anchors, a 20 ft long boat with triple, large outboard motors appeared from the west and after briefly stopping ashore, took a loop around our boats. The six occupants were clearly in uniforms and flak-jackets and there was no doubt that they were well armed. They did not stop to talk to us but waved to us cheerily before going back ashore on Roncador. We presumed that they were part of the Colombian Navy force from Providencia and were very glad that they were not the feared boat-load of Nicaraguan guerrillas.
Although the wind was behind us on our westward journey, most of the time it was insufficient to add significantly to our 5.5 knot motoring speed. We had the jib up for a while to help reduce the roll from the small swell but pulled it in around 1:30 am when it was flapping uselessly. It was a very peaceful crossing and I managed to learn a couple of new constellations (Delphinus and Lyra both near Cygnus) during my 4 -7 am watch.
The light was not ideal as we cautiously approached the anchorage at Low Cay around 9 am so we had to back up once to avoid a shallow reef that was not visible until we were very close to it. Sea Star and Wind Song crept inside one reef to anchor in fairly shallow water close to the tiny, sand island on which the light tower stood (very similar to Bajo Nuevo), while Randall and I decided to anchor a little further south of the island in 27 ft of water. The barrier reef with an almost continuous line of breaking waves that extended on both sides of the island provided relief from the swell and there were various reefs and coral heads inside this barrier that we could comfortably explore by snorkeling directly from the anchored boats.
We could not see the light tower on Low Cay until we were fairly close to it but as it started to get light during my 4 – 7 am watch, the hilly outline of the main island of Providencia soon became evident. Although the island is only 4 nm from north to south, the central peak is 1,200 ft high so it is visible from a good distance and the clouds that form over the mountain would be visible even further away. We could see it clearly from our anchorage on the first day but the view of it became hazy after that.
Not long after we had set our anchors at Low Cay another sailboat, Avion, joined us having arrived from Honduras after several days at sea. Later in the day, Dan and Kathy chatted to Roy who was single-handing and on his way to San Andrés. He had spent much of the last 10 years cruising in the Caribbean, so he could provide us with useful information about some of the places that we planned to visit.
We snorkeled several times during our two day stay at Low Cay and although the water was not as clear as at Roncador and the abundance of fish did not seem to be as great, the diversity was excellent including several species that we had not seen before in the Caribbean or Bahamas. The most notable of these was a spotted drum for which Dan had offered a (fictitious) reward for the first sighting (along the lines of the reward Columbus had offered for the first sight of land in the New World). I happened to see this fish when out with Jamie and we tried hard to remember where it was. This was aided by the presence near the reef of some odd structures which looked like someone’s research project. There were four units suspended in the water at various depths (made of small floats, PVC pipe, and something like plastic shag carpet) anchored in the sand and with a fair number of creatures growing on them.
The next day, Randall and I returned to the area and he soon spotted the elusive fish. He kept his eyes on it while I held my hand up for Dan and Kathy to swim towards. Dan was very pleased to see his quarry at last and the fish must have been fairly bemused by the time five inquisitive humans, one with a flashing camera, had spent enough time looking at it. The other interesting find was that there were several species of hamlet (small members of the seabass family) which we had not seen previously on this trip. I noted five species by the end of our stay at Low Cay (barred, butter, masked, black, and indigo hamlets) which seemed remarkable. Dan noticed that our Reef Fish book described the distribution of the very distinctive looking masked hamlet as “Uncommon to rare Cayman Islands, Belize, Honduras and Providencia Island; not reported balance of range” (Caribbean, Florida, and Bahamas). So that was a particularly satisfying find.
There was more algae at this site than we had seen elsewhere most notably a brown alga called saucer leaf alga (or its almost indistinguishable relative the blistered saucer leaf alga) both of which have tough, triangular blades that feel as though they are made of rigid plastic. There was also quite a diversity of corals, with staghorn, pillar, sheet, finger, and elkhorn corals in addition to the usual variety of brain, star, and mustard hill corals. I should make more of an effort to identify the corals but it is hard not to be distracted by all the interesting fish. It never ceases to amaze me how close to most of these wild fish one can get. It seems much more intimate than with birds or most terrestrial wildlife.
On Monday, we carefully took the dinghies out through a shallow gap in the breaking waves to snorkel outside the barrier reef. As at Roncador, the bottom here was mostly flat rock but there were fewer fish here. Or at least so it seemed until a huge school of at least 200 grunts of various species (French, Caesar, white, bluestriped, and Spanish) flowed over the sea floor. It truly looked like a majestic silver/yellow river washing over and around rocks and corals on the seabed and diving down into their midst was a glorious feeling. We knew that soon it would be time to reacquaint ourselves with civilization when we visited the harbors on Providencia and San Andrés but as we spent our last full day at our third, remote, reef anchorage we felt thoroughly privileged to be able to share so much time in such beautiful habitats with just a few like-minded friends.