Panama Pacific Coast 2010

N 08° 55' W 79° 31'

Why sailing can still be great fun

April 01, 2010

Although we could have stayed quite happily exploring the neighboring anchorage at San José, we had to start heading back towards Panamá City.  Mike and Dede were going to stay a couple more nights in Las Perlas and then they planned to sail west around Punta Mala to explore some of the western Panamanian islands before entering Costa Rica in May.  So on Sunday evening (March 28th) we enjoyed a nice dinner with them (including Dede’s excellent papaya/carrot cake and Randall’s delicious pie made with the juice from our sour Mogo Mogo fruit), exchanged some reading books, and said farewell.  We had really enjoyed our time together and were fairly confident that we would catch up to them in the western islands or in Costa Rica.

Monday dawned with a good north-northwesterly breeze so we had no trouble hoisting both the mainsail and jib and sailing out of our anchorage.  We took the passage east of Isla San José,  aimed for Contadora, and had a magnificent upwind sail almost all the way.  We were able to make sweeping tacks across the San José Sound before leaving it by Isla Bayoneta and we only had to motor-sail the final approach into Contadora because at low tide we had to negotiate a narrow passage between two reefs, heading directly into the wind.   Sailing into the wind it certainly took us twice as long to make the 20 mile journey as it would have done if we had just motored but we agreed that it was probably the best close-hauled passage we had enjoyed in a year or so.

If we are living and traveling on a sailboat you might wonder why we would find this particular day of sailing so pleasurable, just as we had on our downwind run going to Isla San José.   Sunny skies certainly help but mostly it was the beauty of moving smoothly through relatively calm seas and with perfectly steady 10-15 knot winds.  When sailing upwind, if the wind is too light the waves may be small but you cannot point as closely into the wind direction so forward progress is very slow.  With stronger winds (over 20 knots) although one can point more closely to the desired direction of travel one has to think about reefing the sails (so as to heel less) and the waves are going to be bigger which can slow the boat down.   So the ideal conditions, of good wind speeds and seas that are calm because they are protected by land or because the wind has just increased, are not quite as common as one would like and we really relish a day of sailing when everything seems just right.

Of course, catching a couple of fish did not hurt our enthusiasm either.  We landed our first Mexican (or striped) bonito (which was very tasty when cooked and dressed with melted butter, garlic, and Mogo Mogo citrus juice) and a sierra mackerel.   After finding it was rather hard work to haul in the bonito while we were still sailing, Randall encouraged me to heave-to while he pulled in the mackerel and as we drifted along at around 1 knot it was clear that this was a much better idea.

After such a pleasant day it was a bit disappointing to be none-the-wiser about the status of the auto-pilot part after we had called Protecsa.  Looking at the weather forecast it seemed that we would likely have a better passage back to Panamá City on Wednesday rather than Tuesday so we decided to stay at Contadora for two nights.  The next day, when we finally heard about our part it turned out, with tedious inevitability, that it had not yet been shipped and the earliest it could arrive was on Monday.  Having just noticed that the coming weekend was Easter, which meant that businesses in Panama would be closed on Friday and possibly Thursday, we both recognized that it was very unlikely that we would see our part for another week or so.  This realization meant that our next few days would be occupied with getting a place to leave Tregoning and making a bus trip to Costa Rica.

We had to leave the country for at least three days when our visas expired on Tuesday (April 6th).   If the auto-pilot part had been waiting for us we would have returned to Panamá City to re-provision, refuel, take on water, etc, and then checked-out of Panama to follow Joss sailing west towards Costa Rica.  Instead we had to leave the country for 72 hours to renew our immigration status and would then have until May 31st (when our cruising permit expires) to leave on Tregoning.  We certainly plan to head north well before then but you never know.  We had looked at the price of economy flights to Florida or Cartagena (to make a surprise visit to see Kathy and Dan on Sea Star) but everything was too expensive at such short notice so we decided to take the bus to Costa Rica and hope to find somewhere reasonable to stay when we got there.

Even though the wind was no stronger nor in a particularly different direction than the previous night, for some reason Tregoning rolled a lot during Tuesday night and neither of us slept very well.  Despite this we made a fairly early start the next morning, motoring around the west side of Islas Contadora and Pacheca.  We picked up a strong current as we sped past the latter island and then looked out over a very placid sea for our 30 mile motor to the northwest.  Just as we were about to settle down to a relaxed routine of one hour watches, one of the fishing reels started to scream and we excitedly anticipated a nice mahi mahi or tuna.  To our horror, however, it became apparent that we had caught a bird.

While Randall let the line out, so as not to pull the bird along and risk drowning it, I immediately reduced our speed. We then slowly reversed back towards the bird while Randall gently reeled in the slack on the line.  It was an immature blue-footed booby which has a sizable beak so I got the leather gloves and wire cutters for Randall as he gently pulled the bird closer to the transom where he climbed down on the swim ladder.  Our fears that it was horribly hooked were fortunately unfounded.  Instead, it had, oddly, got a loop of line around the tip of one wing.  The loop in the line was well above the leader so the young bird must have flown into it above the water surface.  As Randall got the bird closer to him it struggled a few times and finally the loop slipped off the wing and the bird paddled away with a very disgruntled attitude.  We were very glad that the hook was nowhere near the creature and that its wing did not appear to be damaged. 

After this dramatic episode, as I returned helm I saw a whale surfacing just ahead of us. Being preoccupied with sorting out his fishing lines, Randall did not see the whale despite my surprised cry of “Whale Ho!”, and when there were no further signs for a few minutes I started to doubt my own observation.  But eventually as we slowly swung around we saw at least two black, curved backs gracefully break the water surface during their lazy breathing roll.

The Bauhaus guide mentioned that exactly where we were, “north of Pachequilla whales are sometimes sighted” and Robert and Trisha on Bristol Rose had seen some there too, so there must either be a small resident population or the conditions are just right there for whales to visit or be seen.  If we had not stopped to release the poor blue-footed booby is it unlikely that we would have seen the whales either, as it was we spent a delightful 30 minutes slowly circling around watching the giants coming up to breath. 

By the time we saw a whale it was half way through its roll and we were never close enough to look down on one from above so it was difficult to make a definitive identification.  By a process of elimination we narrowed the list of likely candidates down to Minke, Bryde’s, or humpback whales.  Our identification book indicated that the humpbacks on this coast were not typically found south of Mexico but other sources mention migrating populations that are seen off other Panamanian islands.  The deciding factor in favor of humpbacks was that several times we saw the distinctive shape of the humpback’s tail flukes and the other possible species rarely show their tails.

The rest of our journey to Panamá City was uneventful but after such an interesting start we were not complaining.  Now that we knew that we had to leave Tregoning for a few days it was imperative that we find somewhere secure to leave her rather than trust the unattended anchor.  Given the crowds of boats preparing to leave for the South Pacific, we feared that it might take a few days to find a suitable vacancy.  Our options were a mooring at Balboa Yacht Club, a slip at Flamenco Marina (very expensive), or returning to a mooring at Las Brisas.  After our previous mooring misadventures there, one might think that the last option was the least appealing but the price was fairly reasonable and we knew that the other two places were likely to be full.  So we called Alex on the phone and to our surprise he said that he had a free mooring and he would see us at the dock later in the afternoon.

So we slowly motored into the bay at Las Brisas.  We noted a large Canadian boat on our former mooring but most of the others were occupied by the same boats.  Uncertain that Alex in his office really knew if they had a free mooring or not, it was with great relief that we noticed a empty one with one of the new mooring balls and with a little help from a friendly neighbor in his dinghy we secured Tregoning to the new mooring lines.  A lancha appeared from the dock and the security person asked us what we were doing.  We told him that we had talked to Alex and once he had confirmed this by radio we were welcomed back to the marina.

The anchorages were still fairly full but there had been quite a turnover of the boats in the nearly three weeks since we left.  It appeared that Olivier had departed from Aria so we hoped that he was on his way to The Galapagos.  After a day of doing laundry and completing a few necessary boat chores we will pack lightly and set off for the bus station on Friday on our way to Costa Rica.  It remains to be seen what will be open and running on the Good Friday holiday but as long as we cross the border by Tuesday we will have fulfilled our objective.  So off we go on a new, inland traveling experience!

view comments (1) add comment
N 08° 15' W 79° 05'

It must be nice to own an island

March 29, 2010

Now that we had a functioning windlass and so could pull the anchor up at a reasonable speed, we had decided that it was good to practice sailing away from our anchorages whenever possible in case we ever had a problem starting the engine.  The windlass uses a lot of battery power but in the sunny and windy conditions of the dry season we could be fairly confident that we could recharge the batteries while sailing to the next destination.  We were still tending to use the engine when approaching an anchorage because this is safer where one has to navigate around shallow areas for the first time (when leaving one can confidently follow the incoming track on the chart-plotter) and because the anchor can be set much more firmly using the engine in reverse.  At some point when in an anchorage with plenty of space we will have to practice anchoring under sail.

It is also good to conserve fuel and when one can hope to sail for most of the day it is pleasant to slip away from an anchorage quietly.  Thus, on Saturday morning (March 27th) as we left Isla Bayoneta to go 13 miles southwest to the large bay on the southeast side of Isla San José, we were glad to be able to sail away using only our jib.  We had a fabulous downwind run making long gybes back and forth across the sound between Isla del Rey to the east and Islas Pedro Gonzales and San José to the west.  None of us caught any fish but the conditions were so pleasant that everyone was very relaxed and happy by the time we anchored in the shelter of Ensenada Playa Grande.  We returned to near where we had anchored with my brother Mike (but a bit closer to the shore) while Mike and Dede went further west to look for a path Dede had seen on a previous visit.  A couple of French boats came in soon after and anchored near us but over near Joss there was a large motor vessel on a mooring, to which a couple of sport-fishing boats tied-up later in the evening.

Given that our new outboard had not been behaving very well on our previous visit and so we had not ventured very far from Tregoning, this time Randall and I quickly launched the dinghy so that we could explore the three caves on the headland east of the anchorage.  With a slight swell we did not dare get too far inside.  However, in the evening light, the cliffs, beaches, and islets were spectacular with all sorts of interesting strata of rocks and conglomerates of various shades of red, green, grey, and brown.  Mike and Dede joined us while trolling their fishing lines near the rocky shore and we watched as they caught a good sized snapper.  They very generously shared the fish with us for dinner.

The next morning we caught the low tide and revisited the caves in Mike and Dede’s dinghy.  This time we could (briefly) get the dinghy just inside two of the caves. We could not enter the third one which had shallow rocks protecting the entrance but we could see that the tunnel extended under the narrow headland because a patch of light on a beach on the other side was just visible.  On a really calm day with no swell these caves would be very interesting to snorkel in but no one else seemed to be interested this day.

We then crossed to the west side of the large bay where we left the dinghy floating just off the beach and tried Mike’s long-line, anchor-pulley system again.  Here it did not work quite as well as at Mogo Mogo because the beach was so shallow that it was a long way from the low-water shoreline to the high-water mark.  We had to use our dinghy anchor to secure the ends of the long-line, inshore of where we landed but by the time we returned a couple of hours later even this anchor was under 3 – 4 feet of water so Mike had to swim out to the dinghy and then bring it in close enough for the rest of us to climb aboard without getting our bags wet.  

During our visit ashore, we walked along the high-tide line until we found the mouth of a dirt road and then we cautiously walked inland for about a mile before turning around.  Our caution was on two accounts.  The previous evening, we had seen some small wild pigs on the beach and although they were not huge we did not want to risk surprising any boars that might not be feeling too hospitable. (At least we assumed that these were pigs but there is chance that they were peccaries.)  We had also seen people riding on a couple of all-terrain-vehicles on the beach so we knew that someone was probably at home on the island and we did not want to walk around a corner and suddenly find ourselves at their house.  In Las Perlas, Isla San José is second in size only to Isla del Rey and being about 6 miles long and 5 miles wide is fairly substantial.  This was especially impressive given that the whole island is privately owned.

There was a large house in the next bay to the west, a cabin over the largest cave, an airstrip to our east, and goodness knows how many other buildings scattered around the island.  So it probably should not have been surprising that the road was well maintained with the occasional culvert over a dried stream and with palms and fruit trees that appeared to have been planted along the edge.  As we had noticed elsewhere, the vegetation was very dry with areas of brown grass and many trees that had shed their leaves for the dry season.  We saw and heard surprisingly few birds until we walked under one tree that was smothered in a flower-covered vine.  This one tree was full of busy small birds and insects and we were particularly pleased to identify a blue-grey tanager and some male and female red-legged honeycreepers (the males being dark blue with bright red legs and a long curved black bill).

After admiring the birds we returned to the beach where we met a couple of other cruisers who, like us, were enjoying the opportunity to stretch our legs.  It was lovely to walk on the long beach and I certainly enjoyed seeing the birds on our little venture inland. But I had mixed feelings about whether we should have left the beach.  We certainly did not leave, take, or damage anything on our walk and there were no signs indicating that we should not be on the road so we did not ignore any warnings or do any harm.  The absence of such notices in an area popular with cruisers suggested that the owners were not particularly concerned about curious visitors but who knows how they would have reacted had we met the people on their ATVs.  Knowing that the whole island is private property and considering that we would be pretty upset if we had seen the owners climb about our boat just to look around, I felt that maybe we behaved inappropriately.  But the cruising guide mentions the roads and only warns that cruisers should not dump garbage on the shore or in the water so perhaps such visits are acceptable because it seems that the guide would be sure to mention if visitors had been aggressively discouraged.  It is a beautiful island and uninvited visitors are only likely to explore a small proportion of it in areas closest to the three anchorages so perhaps the owners are generous enough not to begrudge sharing those areas occasionally.  I only hope that if I was as fortunate to own a whole island I would be a gracious host but knowing how it only takes a few thoughtless or wanton people to abuse such open hospitality, I am afraid to say that I am not so sure.

add comment
N 08° 29' W 79° 02'

Reunited with Joss

March 26, 2010

The $15 pay-as-you-go cellphone that we had bought after some debate in Bocas back in June had been much more useful than we had expected.  We could call the USA or Britain when needed and we used it in Panama much more than we had anticipated, to call for taxis, find business opening times, and check on the status of deliveries.  It was partly for the latter use, specifically to see whether our auto-helm computer had been shipped from the USA, that we left Espiritu Santo on Monday morning (March 22nd) and in very calm conditions motored northwest to Contadora.  Apparently phones using the Cable and Wireless network function all over Las Perlas but using the Moviestar network we only had decent reception near the large relay towers on Contadora.

We briefly saw a few dolphins (the mammals) and quite a number of small lanchas out fishing north of Isla del Rey but we had no bites on our lines.  Given the calm conditions we decided to check the deviation on our cockpit compass which had never been corrected (called “swinging the compass”) since we installed it.  This was done by slowly turning Tregoning in a wide circle and, using a small, hand-held compass, Randall noted as we passed through each 10 degree point (0, 10, 20, 30 etc. degrees).  At each point I wrote down what the cockpit compass read and we could then plot the results on paper.  This showed that the cockpit compass was under-reading by up to 15 degrees to the north, was fairly accurate to east and west, and was over-reading by up to 12 degrees to the south.  The cockpit compass clearly needed to be recalibrated (there are screws you can adjust to move the magnets in it) but at least the error looked like a fairly standard pattern that could be off-set.  When this has been done, we could then compare the compass headings to courses shown on the GPS while motoring Tregoning in specific directions (in the absence of cross currents).  Watching us slowly circle but ignoring our trailing lines, the fishermen must have wondered what we had found in the water or what had gone wrong with our steering.

As we approached Contadora we called the USA and wished our younger daughter, Shev, a very happy birthday and enjoyed learning more about her wedding plans for August.  Once anchored, we learned that our part was to be shipped on March 25th (so we would check its status again on March 29th) and we received a call from Mike and Dede on Joss.  They had enjoyed a good trip to Boquete but were now ready to leave Panamá City and would arrive in Las Perlas the next day.  They were very irritated that when they went to get their zarpe (papers to show that they left Panama in good standing) they were charged an “anchoring fee” of $3 a day that had never been mentioned before.  Mike refused to pay it and after an hour or so of discussion (once a translator was found) their receipt for the mooring they had used at the Balboa Yacht Club while they went to Boquete appeared to be enough evidence that they had not anchored the whole time and the matter was dropped. 

Later they heard from someone who tried to get a zarpe right after them.  He was charged much more and when he did not pay he was refused a zarpe.  This meant that he could not check-out with the Immigration Office (because a zarpe is needed if you are not leaving Panama by plane or road) but he decided to leave anyway and take his chances when he arrived in the next country.  If there is a consistent anchoring fee for a defined area that is clearly explained at check-in, that would be more understandable but talking with other cruisers it became apparent that this “fee” was being applied quite arbitrarily.  Mike and Dede complained to the marina owners at Bocas del Toro (who have been trying hard to get the rules for cruisers simplified and applied consistently around Panama) and it appears that someone was chastised at the Panamá City Port Captain’s Office but we wait with some curiosity to see what happens when it is our turn to leave.

We had gone back in our favorite spot at the west end of the southern anchorage at Contadora and we found it interesting that each time we arrived there the majority of yachts were in different areas.  On our first visit all the sailing boats were concentrated at the west end with only one boat on the east side of the approach to the airport runway.  The next time, most boats were in the middle, just west of the runway, and this time most people had anchored to the east of the runway.  On our previous visit, we had tried anchoring in a more central location, closer to the beach access, but the anchor did not “set” well, feeling as though it was bouncing over rubble.  Hence, we had a tendency to return to the same western location, where we knew that the anchor would dig soundly into the sand.  We surmised that the concentrations of other boats moved partly because of the “National Park effect” (people tend to stop and congregate near where someone else is already located rather than try a new area thinking that there must be something good or interesting where they are) and possibly to try to gain better wireless internet reception near the airport.  We did not get the latter very well on the boat so the next day we rowed ashore.  We needed to get some fresh fruit and vegetables (but sadly learnt that the small stores would be restocking the next day so there we only a few rather tired specimens left) and we spent a couple of hours (and $5 plus the cost of drinks) using the wireless service at the resort on the north side of the island. 

In the afternoon, we hoisted the jib and in a fresh north wind sailed the three miles south from Contadora into the anchorage near the southeast beach on Isla Chapera where there was just one other boat, Chris and Eric on Lady Meg.   We went for a delightful snorkel just north of the beach and were pleased to see the water clarity seemed to be getting better.  It was a bit rolly where we anchored so when Joss arrived around dusk we encouraged them to try further west in the middle of the channel between Islas Chapera and Mogo Mogo where the water seemed to be calmer.  Tired after crossing from Panamá City in fairly choppy sea, Dede and Mike were very grateful when we came aboard bringing dinner and caught up on their news. 

The next day we tried snorkeling in the channel on the Mogo Mogo side but the currents were strong and visibility there was not very good so we did not see much fish life of interest.  We did explore some narrow rock gullies that had an exciting wave surge in and out of them and then joined Mike and Dede on the large beach where we collected some very sour citrus fruit.  They looked like tangerines but had no sweetness at all.  While we did this the tide was going out and Mike tested a new system he had devised for anchoring the dinghy off the beach.  Using a pulley and long lines to shore, the dinghy could be anchored far enough out to still be in water when the tide dropped but it could be taken to shore to unload and load.  The lines were then used from the shore to pull the dinghy back from the shore out to the anchor.  The idea is to avoid having to drag the dinghy up or down the beach as the tides change nor having to swim out to the where it is anchored.  It worked really well, especially as there were trees close to the water to which the shore lines could be tied.

On returning to our boats, we pulled up our anchors and set off southwest for our next destination, one that Dede and Mike knew well but we had not visited before, Isla Bayoneta.  Again, we sailed away from the anchorage using just our jib but it was a bit uncertain whether we would make it all the way out of the channel and avoid several shallow areas without needing the motor or mainsail.  We just managed it but at the end of the delightful downwind sail we did have to motor into the wind to get into the small bay at Isla Bayoneta.  Although we could see a couple of other cruising boats anchored off other islands to the east and a few local fishing boats passed by, we had the well sheltered bay between Islas Malaga, Bayoneta, and Vivienda to ourselves.

Mike and Dede enjoyed fishing from their dinghy in the evenings but were not as successful around a large partly submerged rock island as they expected.  So on Thursday afternoon we snorkeled around it with Mike.  The visibility was not very good but we did see some respectably sized snappers, some huge parrot fish, a nurse shark, and a small hawksbill turtle.  This was the first shark that Randall and I had seen in the Pacific, although this was possibly more of a function of the limited visibility than an absence of the creatures.  Having learned that the fish seemed to be really close to the rocky shore, Mike and Dede were a bit more successful on their next fishing expedition.

Given that the snorkeling was not particularly good, we mostly entertained ourselves with projects on the boat or exploring some of the beaches and inlets on the local islands.  Randall and I had hoped to go ashore on the long beach on the west side of Isla Bayoneta because the Bauhaus Guide notes that large cowries may be found there but the waves were fairly large on the steep beach so we decided not to risk flipping the dinghy over trying to get ashore.  We did find a few interesting shells on other beaches and out in deeper water saw quite a few stingrays “flying” underneath us.

Despite the limited snorkeling we thoroughly enjoyed this anchorage.  The calm water allowed us three good nights of sleep.  There were attractive views and beaches all around us and the interesting geology of the surrounding islands, which included some black volcanic sand and many large, rounded rocks that almost looked riverine or glacial in origin, was most intriguing. 

add comment
N 08° 25' W 78° 51'

Where has everybody gone?

March 21, 2010

As I have mentioned before, one of the joys of this life-style is having the time to read a lot of books and, so far, we have been lucky enough to make good exchanges of books either from big collections (such as Bocas del Toro Marina) or with like-minded individuals.  In 2009 (not counting cruising guides and other study or reference books), I read 44 books of which slightly more were fiction than non-fiction.  This year I have already finished 14 and I love every opportunity to immerse myself in their pages.  Not every book is worthy of recommendation to others but overall the proportion of good ones is satisfyingly high.  Because we are both reading the same books we have our own tiny “book club” and the most wonderful part is not feeling guilty that we should be reading and discussing the latest scientific journal articles instead.

Soon after we started living on Tregoning, I realized that I no longer needed to read about ships in distress at sea or the effects of terrible weather.  So, perhaps rather surprisingly, I do not read much fiction focused on sailing or autobiographies of solo-circumnavigators, who inevitably have to survive some climatic storm-related disaster or two.  If possible, I try to read some books related to where we are in the world, particularly those with an historical perspective.  I am not particularly fond of romance novels so my fictional reading is rather biased to the legal, crime, and action-thriller genres which seem to be popular with other cruisers.  By the time we decided to move from Casaya to Espiritu Santo, I was well engrossed in a complex, action-filled whodunit by David Baldacci.

We had a glorious broad-reach sail to the east in a brisk breeze and fine sunshine.  We did not have any success fishing but we did practice “heaving-to”.  This is an important technique to slow one’s forward motion while the sails are up (which compared to having “bare-poles” maintains a bit more boat stability in the waves).  The wind was strong enough that with full sails we still moved forward at a couple of knots so we would have had to reef the main and furl in the jib to slow the movement down to nearer zero knots but we felt confident with the general concept as it applies to Tregoning.

As we rounded the corner into the anchorage between Islas Esprirtu Santo and del Rey we expected to see quite a few boats.  There would be the three boats that Mike and Dede had told us that more or less live there permanently plus over the last few days we had heard a couple of boats on their way to the Galapagos talking on the VHF about stopping there first.  So it was with some shock that we entered a completely empty channel.  Normally we would have been thrilled to be able to pick any place to anchor and to enjoy such a beautiful anchorage to ourselves.  But this seemed a little spooky, especially considering that on our two previous visits three of the boats had stayed there for at least a week.

Not long after we anchored (and, rather predictably, we returned to where we had been before rather than experiment with a new spot) a boat laden with six police officers cruised by.  I watched them approach with some apprehension thinking that they were coming to warn us of some calamity that had befallen some other cruisers and causing the anchorage to be shunned but they just motored past responding cheerfully to my wave of greeting.  They seemed to explore around the south end of the bay before disappearing towards the small town near Isla Cañas.  An hour or two later they returned, again waving merrily before blasting north towards San Miguel (north Isla del Rey) or Contadora.  Having not seen any police boats previously in Las Perlas, my suspicious mind kept wondering if something unfortunate had happened here that had put other cruisers off visiting. 

Next, a couple of young men in their lancha stopped by and asked if we had any beer.  We did not but we gave them drinks of water and a small piece of rope that they needed to tie down their 40 hp outboard.  We asked them about the police boat and were told (we think) that what we saw was probably just a routine visit that the police make to the different villages.  The younger lad seemed very friendly and a bit embarrassed that his friend kept asking us for things and looking around decks of the boat.  Since no one had approached us at before at this anchorage, this all added to my sense that things were different.

The final thing that kept me on heightened alert was strange banging noises all around the boat.  These sounded loudest in the cabins and were hardly audible in the cockpit or on deck.  Eventually, we realized that this was fish hitting the hull, a strange phenomenon that we had witnessed to a lesser degree on our previous visit.  Although I had cleaned most of the algae from the waterline, there were still some small organisms that needed to be cleaned off the hull.  We never saw exactly what the slapping fish were doing but there were huge populations of tiny sergeant majors swimming around the rudder and some other small blenny-like fish clinging to the hull so there may have been bigger fish after those or parrot-fish picking stuff off the hull.  Anyway, since one tends to be rather sensitive to unusual noises on a boat, it took me a little while to get used to these occasional bouts of knocking.

It was a beautiful evening and after admiring the sunset and early stars we raised and locked the dinghy, and securely closed the companionway and the larger hatches just in case anybody decided to pay us a visit during the night.  I went to sleep, rather hoping that another cruising boat would join us the next day.

However, rather surprisingly, the only other cruising boat we saw was a catamaran that passed through the anchorage trailing fishing lines on our third day there.  A few fishing boats and lanchas went past but no one seemed remotely interested in us.  As a consequence, we had three very peaceful nights at Espiritu Santo and spent two lovely days getting some more boat chores done in the mornings and snorkeling in the afternoons. 

The first of these marine expeditions repeated the enjoyable afternoon we spent with Mike on the point and beach at the northeast corner of Isla Espiritu Santo, while the second included a circumnavigation of a rocky islet off the southeast corner.  The water clarity seemed to be a bit better than on our previous visits and our second snorkel revealed some lobsters (our first in the Pacific and all but one were young), an eel (identity not clear), and an extraordinary group of about 30 king angelfish.  Used to seeing angelfish alone or in pairs, neither of us had ever seen such a large congregation of them before.

Despite my misgivings about the unusual circumstances when we arrived, Espiritu Santo remained our favorite anchorage in Las Perlas, partly because of the good shelter and holding, and largely because of the good snorkeling.  Soon after arriving, Randall and I had talked about why we felt nervous and whether we should move.  We had concluded that if something had happened recently that would have scared other cruisers away, the police would have probably come over to talk to us.  There will always be the need to make careful assessments of the risks of using remote anchorages alone.  We hope to continue to exercise good judgment or just continue being lucky as we travel but I also may resolve to save reading crime- and suspense-novels until we are surrounded by other cruisers and friends.

add comment
N 08° 30' W 79° 01'

Peaceful waters

March 18, 2010

We enjoyed the location and company at Isla Chapera but the anchorage was very exposed to the east.  Our first night there was rather disturbed because when the wind and tidal current were opposed, Tregoning faced into the current but there were small wind-generated waves slapping into the stern (where we sleep). It was quieter on Tuesday night (March 16th) but we decided to move on the next day to find somewhere a bit more sheltered.  So in light winds on Wednesday morning we slowly sailed south from the anchorage, tacking seven miles downwind to reach the entrance to the anchorage at Islas Ampon and Casaya.  Having finished dining on the last of the Crevalle Jack, we were looking forward to catching another fish on this short passage but had no luck.

The channel into the Casaya anchorage is a little tricky as there are reefs and rocks on either side that are only visible at the lowest tides.  We used the detailed chart in the Bauhaus guide to make GPS waypoints (points identified by latitude and longitude) along the middle of the channel into the bay that we plotted and followed on the chart-plotter.  We arrived just after low tide so most of the rocks were visible on either side and at that time the anchorage was protected from waves from all directions.  By high tide, it looked as though the bay could be approached, and was very exposed, from the east but in fact the water did stay very calm in the bay even when the wind picked up to 15 – 20 knots for a while. 

We stayed near Isla Casaya for a couple of nights spending most of Thursday working on boat projects.  The water was too murky to snorkel and there were no beaches or coves that we felt particularly tempted to explore so we did not leave Tregoning.  We saw a couple of small fishing boats and few local boats running back and forth to the small village just north of us on Isla Casayeta.   Mike and Dede on Joss has seen some manta rays feeding at the water’s surface the last time they had been to this anchorage so we watched out for them optimistically but were not so lucky.  Although not a wildly exciting place, the anchorage was certainly very calm and peaceful.

add comment
N 08° 35' W 79° 01'

A good place to “survive”

March 16, 2010

 -   08 35 12 N  079 01 10 W

After a fairly lazy morning watching the numerous seabirds over Isla Pacheca and finally resuming our long-neglected Spanish lessons, I started to clean-off the algae at Tregoning’s waterline.  This job was made much easier by using a handle with two suction cups that I could slap onto the hull and use to hold me in place (and the edges of the cups could be easily lifted up to release them).  Essential when there was much current, even in still water this device reduced the effort needed because without it, the pressure I applied to remove the algae constantly pushed me away from the hull.  Thank you, Jamie, for introducing us to this cunningly simple device, which we purchased at Christmas.  Although I could not see much beyond Tregoning’s hull, it was good to be able to swim again in water that was much cleaner than anything near Panamá City. 

During the night, the wind had shifted from its southerly direction to be more northerly so that our anchorage was not quite as sheltered as it had been.  Small waves had made it bit rolly, so we decided not to launch the dinghy to explore more of the island but instead raised the sails, lifted the anchor, and headed south to Isla Contadora.  We had a pleasant sail in the light breeze but there was increasing cloud cover.  Eventually we started to hear thunder to the northeast although we, thankfully, did not see any lightning.  As we approached the anchorage south of Contadora it became evident that we were going to receive some rain, the only question was whether it would douse us before or after we had anchored.  Rather annoyingly, it got us just as we were setting the anchor and the shower was brief enough that it was over by the time we were ready to scrub down the decks in the lovely fresh water.

We enjoyed the familiarity of being back at Contadora and with six other boats it was not too crowded.  However, the gentle swell from the southeast combined with the northerly breezes, and NE/SW currents rolled the boat quite a bit during the night so we decided to go elsewhere the next day and save a return visit for when we actually needed something from the stores.  Just before we sailed away from this anchorage late on Monday morning (March 15th), we saw Bristol Rose and Inspiration Lady arrive from Pacheca.    

As we had done the previous day, we sailed about three miles south in light winds.   This put us at the anchorage on the southeast side of Isla Chapera, in the channel between this island and Isla Mogo Mogo,   Of the two boats already there, one was Jackster, a British boat we had heard over the last three days talking to Bristol Rose on the VHF radio.  I spent part of the afternoon cleaning more of the waterline, during which time Bristol Rose and Inspiration Lady arrived and invited us to join them on the beach that evening.  Robert, Trish, and their two adult sons had been extremely successful in their fishing and so wanted to share their Sierra mackerel.  They grilled the delicious fish over a small fire on the beach while we, Dave and Jackie from Jackster (British), and Gary and Jackie from Inspiration Lady (Canadian), contributed various side dishes.  It was a delightful evening and it turned out that we were all waiting for parts to arrive in Panamá City.

The three boats were going to sail together to the Galapagos and South Pacific.  Gary and Jackie had spent 25 years building their boat and planning their trip from Canada, while the global circumnavigation of Jackster was a much more recently conceived idea.  Robert and Trish were Australians who, after many years living in the USA (both sons had American accents), were sailing home.  They had actually been part of the ARC Around-the-World Rally that had bumped us from our intended Canal transit day but they had now been left behind. 

They had set off for the Galapagos with the rest of the rally but in rough weather near the Panama/Colombia border their jib sheet had been swept overboard and caught in their propeller, disconnecting the propeller shaft.  Thus, even once the conditions calmed enough for someone to go overboard to remove the line, the propeller did not work.  To make matters worse, their hydraulic steering had been damaged so that they could not just continue on under sail.  Instead they drifted for 36 hours towards the Colombian coast while reporting all of their problems on the SSB radio networks.  By the time their buddy-boat heard this, they were 100 miles ahead and although they hove-to for a while there was nothing they could do even if they could get back to Bristol Rose.  Eventually, someone with a satellite phone contacted the US Coast Guard (Bristol Rose is a USA flagged vessel) and a Panamanian Coast Guard ship came out to rescue them.  They were towed to Bahia Piñas, one of the southernmost anchorages in Panama, and someone at the Tropic Star Lodge (a sportfishing resort) was able to fix their steering and propeller shaft sufficiently for them to make their own way back to Panamá City where they had the boat hauled out to complete the repairs.

After hearing this nightmarish story we were impressed at how calmly the family could talk about it and how relaxed they seemed about the upcoming, second attempt to get to the Galapagos.  It turned out that we had seen Bristol Rose before, at the Río Cacique anchorage in early February and I assume that was before they set off for the Galapagos.  Keeping busy with fishing, snorkeling, and exploring in their dinghy, they clearly knew how to enjoy themselves and we were very glad to have finally made their acquaintance. 

On Tuesday morning, we anchored the dinghy near Isla Mogo Mogo and enjoyed snorkeling around small rocky island that was just covered at high tide.  There was some coral, an interesting diversity of fish, and several discarded fishing nets.  We then went ashore at a large beach and walked around on Isla Mogo Mogo.  The beach had a tide line covered with shells including a many, very distinctive pink and orange scallops.  There were quite a few iguanas scuttling around but we decided not to explore very far inland as we started to hear mosquitoes buzzing as soon as we were sheltered from the breeze.  The island is not permanently inhabited (unlike the large compound we saw beyond our anchorage on Isla Chapera) but according to Bauhaus, several of the TV “Survivor” series have been filmed there.  Having never watched the show, we were not going to recognize any landmarks but we did find a few odd objects on the beach, such as concrete-filled basketballs perched on short metal posts, which we assume had been left behind from some “tribal challenge”.  They did not appear to be filming while we were there but if they show anymore series from this island, look out for sailboats in the background and you may see our anchorage.

add comment
N 08° 40' W 79° 02'

Another species for dinner

March 13, 2010

Sometimes it is surprisingly hard to give people money.  Having stayed on the mooring at Las Brisas for two and a half weeks, by Saturday morning (March 13th) we were ready to leave and test out our revitalized anchor windlass.  We owed a week’s worth of fees for the mooring but for three days I kept being put off by the nice guy, Alex, to whom we were supposed to pay this debt.  Finally, when he failed to show up on Saturday at 8:30 am as arranged, I gave the $125 to the man at the security desk who assured me that a receipt would eventually be forthcoming.  He spoke less English than I spoke Spanish and my efforts to explain that we wanted to leave soon somehow gave him the impression that we were staying, or coming back, for another week.  Oh, well.  Having talked to Alex on the phone to tell him where his money was and being assured that everything was OK, we decided to forego the receipt.  The mooring was very important while we fixed the windlass (and could not use the anchor) but we were not sorry to leave the chaos of the crowded bay where someone’s breaking mooring lines or dragging anchors had been an almost daily occurrence.

By the time Randall had changed the diesel engine oil, bought new oil, and we had said farewell to Olivier, we did not cast-off until 11 am, but it was a good feeling to motor out of Las Brisas and raise the sails.  There was a lively breeze but (almost inevitably) it was from the southeast, from almost exactly the direction we needed to go to reach Las Perlas.  Had we just anchored and waited another day we would have been treated to a downwind run as the wind moved around to the northwest but we were so ready to leave Panamá City that we decided to keep going.  We really enjoyed the sailing for a couple of hours, making some large tacks but the wind was not quite strong enough for us to point very close to our intended track.  Thus, we were making very slow headway and our estimated time of arrival kept slipping back later and later into the night.  We watched a slightly larger boat that was going faster than us and that pointed upwind more tightly disappear before us and finally we decided to drop the sails and motor as we would rather be anchored for the night than tacking back and forth.  We subsequently heard on the radio that the other boat that had succeeded in engendering a slight feeling of inadequacy had actually spent all day motor-sailing so it was no surprise that their tacks were faster and closer to the wind.

It turned out to be just as well that we dropped the sails when we did because soon afterwards one of the fishing lines started wailing.  Randall pulled in a good-sized fish which, based on the yellow flash of fins, we excitedly surmised was a yellow-fin tuna.  In fact, once it was aboard and I had studied our fish guidebooks, we realized that it was a Crevalle jack, the edibility of which was variously described as good to poor.  We also realized that this was the species that Mike and Randall had seen at the stern of Tregoning on our previous trip to Las Perlas when they had pulled in the last fish before arriving at San Jose.  (All our vegetarian friends may wish to skip to the next paragraph.)  With the larger specimens reputed to have very dark, strongly flavored meat we bled the fish and thoroughly washed the 3 lbs of fillets.  Noting that the meat was very firm, I cooked it in fairly thin slices and we ate the first portion that night with some hesitation.  Actually, the texture was excellent and there was surprisingly little flavor, such that the following night we prepared it with a delicious sauce (a mix of peach jam, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup) that made it a very tasty meal.

Landing the fish had slowed us down even more, so as the sun sank in the west we decided to abandon our intention to return to the anchorage at Isla Contadora but instead to anchor on the east side of Isla Pacheca the northernmost island of any size in Las Perlas.  The boat that had sped ahead of us when sailing, Bristol Rose, had also decided to anchor there but with only one catamaran already in the area there was plenty of room for us all.  Our edition (3rd) of the Bauhaus cruising guide stated that this island was uninhabited except by huge flocks of pelicans, frigatebirds, and cormorants.  These residents were certainly much in evidence as they wheeled over the island and noisily roosted in some of the large trees.  But they now shared the shore by the anchorage with a large dock and extensive compound of buildings.  At first we assumed that it was a hotel but subsequently learned that it was a huge private residence with smaller houses for the staff.  The floodlights on the tennis court (next to the heli-pad) shone over us for most of the evening, and the next day several kids were having a wild time being towed around on knee boards and in big doughnut-shaped floats so whoever lived there certainly seemed to know how to enjoy their luxury.  Floodlights or not, we were very glad to be away from all the street-lights and noise at Las Brisas and we both heaved long sighs of relief to be back at anchor with a smoothly functioning windlass.

add comment
N 08° 54' W 79° 31'

Waiting for our part in Las Perlas

March 12, 2010

Tomorrow we are planning to go back to Las Perlas to relax and enjoy some snorkeling while we wait for the new computer for our auto-pilot to arrive in Panama City.  It will be a chance to really test the repaired anchor windlass and to escape all the work that we found to do while we were in the city.   Many other cruisers are taking off for the Galapagos and South Pacific so it may be quite a bit less crowded when we return to pick up our part.  We hope that we will then be ready to go to Costa Rica (probably early April).

We may be out of internet access for a couple of weeks in Las Perlas but by the time we return to Panama City I hope to have sorted out some more photos to add to this blog.

view comments (1) add comment
N 08° 54' W 79° 31'

Cutting loose – Part 2

March 10, 2010

Phew, this has been a windy week!  Not long after we arrived in Panamá City we received the brand-new wind generator unit that replaced (under warranty) the one that we returned while we were in the USA and it has had a very good work-out.  The old one had an annoying rattle at lower speeds, the paint was peeling off, and the three blades were starting to disintegrate.  The new one lacks the rattle (thank goodness), has stronger, black (rather than white) UV-resistant blades, and its new white paint is gleaming.  Even with the new look and sound, we still call it ‘Wendy’ and in our recent windy conditions she has been generating loads of electricity day and night. 

Although much quieter than before, we selected this brand (Air Breeze) for its higher efficiency, not for being as silent as some of the six-bladed types we see (and do not hear) on other boats.  In the cockpit, the sound is easy to ignore given all the other noises around on a windy day but at night the whine and slight vibrations that are transferred from her stern mounting-pole to the roof of our aft cabin keep us aware of the changing wind speed.  This is all right if we are at all anxious about our whether the anchor is holding and want to check our position if the wind has increased but can a bit more disturbing than is absolutely necessary on nights when we should not have to worry about our holding, such as when we are on a mooring.

While we were on our mooring at Las Brisas de Amador, Randall worked hard to re-install the windlass (when not being interrupted by having to rescue other boats).  On Friday (March 5th) after all the resin that filled in the previous windlass’s holes had finally set and Randall had carefully bolted in place and re-wired the repaired windlass, he let me try the switches to see if it worked.  I was impressed with his calm confidence that all would go well (unaware that he had already briefly tested it himself) and what a joy it was to hear the motor hum and watch the gypsy merrily rotate.  Planning to stay on the mooring for a few more days, we did not immediately attach the anchor and chain, giving the resin time to harden even further before adding that stress.  However, it was very good to know that our financial outlays for the new solenoid (thank you for organizing that, Shev) and for having the motor cleaned and serviced had been worthwhile.

Although I was still busy catching up on my blogs, email, etc, and we were now having to wait for the arrival of a replacement part for the auto-pilot, finishing the windlass gave Randall time to plan several off-boat activities including a “Puddle-Jump Party” on Saturday, a dominoes game on Sunday, and, most exciting of all, we signed up for a day-long trip to visit an Emberá Indian village on Monday.  We were both particularly looking forward to the latter as this tribe has embraced tourism while trying to maintain their traditional practices.  They make very fine grass baskets and nut carvings, the trip involved a 2-hour drive to the Río Chagres, a cayuco ride, a walk to, and swim at, a waterfall, and a native-style lunch.  We had also been regaled with stories about how good such a tour was by brother-in-law Geoffrey when we saw him at the New Year.  However, we made these plans without taking into account the rough weather and our dodgy mooring.

The winds from the north really started to pick up on Friday such that we had quite a bouncy dinghy ride to the dock when we joined Mike and Dede for dinner at an Italian restaurant near the Flamenco marina (a nice walk away on the last island on the causeway).  During that afternoon we had noticed that the sailboat ‘Scouser’ instead of being on its mooring next to us had been tied-up behind one of the working boats and the stupid metal float from their mooring (a small, barnacle encrusted boiler or something similar) was tied up to the dock.  The massive mooring rope was still floating in the right place (now unmarked was rather a navigation hazard) but instead of having a neat loop, to which the float and boat had been tied, it appeared to have two very shaggy ends, suggesting that the dreaded float and barnacles had rubbed their way through the tough, 3-inch diameter rope.

When we returned from our delightful Italian dinner we found that Scouser was tied-up for the night alongside the dinghy-dock and the next morning we watched as new lines were lashed to the remains of the big mooring rope. Scouser (whose engine was apparently not working) was towed out by a work boat and reattached to the mooring which now boasted a more appropriate, bright orange buoy.  Needless to say, as the wind kept blowing we stared down at our own mooring, with the dreaded metal, barnacle-covered float, with some trepidation.  We were now attached to the 3-inch mooring rope by two sections of 1-inch line that were tied off below the loop and a chafe-proof chain that was attached through the loop.  Thus, if the barnacles ate through our loop, as they appeared to have done on Scouser, our chain would be no use and we would be dependent on the 1-inch lines which would have been susceptible to the same chafing.  In retrospect, after seeing what happened to Scouser we should have complained to the dockmaster that our metal float needed to be replaced or we should have somehow reattached the chain to avoid the loop but until the wind and waves died down there appeared little that we could do to improve matters.  It was days before the wind subsided.

Our moorings were at the head of a small bay on the east side of the Amador causeway (to the west of which is the Canal entrance) and north of the islands at the end of the causeway.  During the first few days of our stay at Las Brisas the winds had been from the south so there were many boats near our mooring anchored in the shelter of the islands.  Even more boats were anchored on the other side (SW) of the causeway, at La Playita, which is sheltered from the more typical dry-season winds from the north.  Although the fetch into our bay from the off-shore northern winds was only a mile or so, 2 to 3-ft waves could be kicked up by sustained winds over 15 knots.  From Friday night to Monday morning as the remnants of a continental cold front that had re-chilled Florida passed over us, that is what we had.

Given our angst about the mooring lines, by 11 am on Saturday when winds were in the 20-25 knot range, Randall decided to stay on Tregoning while I went to the “Puddle-Jump Party” with Mike and Dede who were not sorry to be off their boat which was anchored at the edge of our bay and was really rocking in the waves.  This party was a gathering for cruisers who were on their way to the south Pacific within the next few weeks and who had joined the “Puddle-Jump” Club which helps organize some of the details for such a major passage.  The party was sponsored by the Balboa Yacht Club, a USA west-coast cruising magazine, and the Tahiti tourist board.  Like us, Mike and Dede do not plan to make the crossing this year but were curious to know more about it.  More than 100 people from at least 40 boats that are going in 2010 attended and no doubt many more have either already left (like Miss Kathleen) or are yet to arrive in Panamá City so the migration is quite significant.

The pictures of French Polynesia were very attractive and it was obviously a good chance to meet fellow “puddle-jumpers” but there was little information useful for us as these people had already learned about the complex immigration and bonding issues for these islands from the Puddle-Jump website and brochures that they received when they signed-up.  It did look as though the group would be worth joining when we were ready to head west but our current concern was with the wind howling outside. On returning to Las Brisas, Mike and Dede decided to move Joss around to the more sheltered La Playita anchorage, hoping that the following day they would be able to get a mooring at Balboa which would enable them to go on the Emberá tour and to visit friends in Boquete without having to worry about the wind.

Not long after getting back on Tregoning, I noticed an out-of-place boat alongside our moored neighbor Aida, that was dragging towards the rocks with no-one aboard.  Yet again, Randall jumped into the dinghy and rushed to the rescue.   With the dinghy lashed alongside, he could stop the sailboat Bubbles from moving downwind but he could not pull it forward or get on board.  I tried calling for help on the VHF but many cruisers were still at the party.  Luckily, two young men from Scouser managed to paddle their tiny dinghy over and leapt aboard Bubbles where they were able to start the engine and relive Randall.  They had a very difficult time trying to pull the anchor up and it was while they were still wallowing around trying to accomplish this that the owners came rushing down to the dinghy dock and hurried over to their boat.  They were very grateful for all the help and after finally raising the anchor motored around the end of the causeway to re-anchor at La Playita.

On Sunday the winds were even stronger with gusts to 30 knots.  Although Randall did not have to rescue any other boats heading to the rocks, we heard on the VHF that there were boats dragging in both anchorages.  As a result we did not leave Tregoning to go to dominoes that afternoon but made the most of all the wind-generated energy by watching a DVD that evening.

Around 9:30 pm just before we went to bed we peered at our mooring and with some concern noticed that the dreaded float was moving around in a quite different manner than it had previously and was occasionally tapping on our bow.  We stared at the chain and lines for a while and after convincing ourselves that we were still holding all right we finally went to bed.  Within 15 minutes of lying down, the annoying taps started to move down the length of the hull and as we scrambled up on deck we saw our mooring float drifting away from our stern towards the shore.

Although dispensing with the evil lump of metal and barnacles generally seemed like a relief we were left in an uncomfortable predicament.  We were clearly still attached to the mooring rope by our 1-inch lines but it was too dark and rough to see if they were chafed from the float or to attach new lines.  Although our chain appeared not to be hanging free, we were pretty certain that the escape of the float must have because it had worn through the loop in the 3-inch rope in which case our chain was not really secure.  After considering the options of taking turns on mooring-watch or motoring out to sea for the night, we decided to follow Scouser’s example and tie up to the dock.  So we put the dinghy in the water (we now use the spare halyard to hoist it a few feet out of the water alongside Tregoning at night) and used it to retrieve our chain which, indeed, was no longer secured to the cut-open loop.  After starting the engine, we cast the 1-inch lines off Tregoning’s forward cleats and went over to the dock.

Even though it took us a while to get the dock lines and fenders in good positions so that we would not rub or make too much noise on the dock, nobody came to ask us what we were doing so around midnight we went to bed.  Neither of us slept very well and at 1:30 am we awoke to knocking and cries of “Hola”.  I went up to the cockpit and in exhausted bits of Spanglish and miming I managed to explain to the new shift of the security staff what had happened.  They were sympathetic and left us in peace but I had not been surprised at their concern as they do not want yachts tying up to the front of the dock (dinghies must be left on the shallow, shore-side) as the work boats use it all day to pick-up and drop-off passengers and cargo.

We awoke again fairly early and made the most of our position by filling the water tanks, washing the boat down with freshwater, and washing and reorganizing our anchors and chains, including getting everything set up on the repaired windlass.  There was still room for the work boats to pull in on part of the dock and after explaining the situation again to the new security shift (and pointing out the dreaded float on the rocks), I was informed that we were fine where we were and that at 9 am our mooring lines would be fixed.  This was good news and by 10 am we were back on the mooring with a proper new buoy and much better lines attached securely below the remains of the loop (we checked this all in the dinghy before moving Tregoning).  The bitterly frustrating aspect of the debacle was that we had had to miss the Río Chagres tour about which we were truly disappointed.  We subsequently heard from Mike and Dede that it had been a very good trip so we were glad for everyone else who went.  The wind eased up on Monday and we were sufficiently confident in our new mooring arrangement to go shopping with Alberto for most of Tuesday but even double scoops of the delicious ice-cream from the nearby Gelarti store did not compensate for missing the Río Chagres trip.  Since we are still waiting for an auto-pilot part to arrive, maybe we will try to join another tour group before we leave Panama.

add comment
N 08° 54' W 79° 31'

Cutting loose at Las Brisas

March 02, 2010

Having been interrupted from his restoration of the anchor windlass by the tsunami warning on Saturday morning, it was with gusto that Randall launched into this project the following day.  In addition to cleaning all the metal components of the actual windlass, it was necessary to completely re-fit it to the deck.   It had become apparent that the current windlass had been installed over holes in the deck that were intended for an earlier model with a different configuration.  Thus, Randall decided to fill in all but one of the previous holes with resin and fiberglass and then drill out new holes for the windlass mechanism and securing bolts, having aligned the whole thing correctly for our main anchor roller.

It was while he was dripping hot resin into some old bolt holes and applying a top layer to the larger holes that we heard frantic calls from a boat on one side of us.  While Randall stayed focused on his job I looked up to see what the commotion was about and realized that Olivier was being asked to help rescue a monohull sailboat, French Kiss, that was being blown, bow-first towards the rocks at the head of the bay.  It was high tide and the waves were not too bad but there was a fresh breeze and we quickly realized that it would take more than one dinghy to have any chance of moving the 40 ft long boat into the wind.  So I had to take over the resin job while Randall jumped into our dinghy and raced over to help Olivier and the two guys he picked up from another boat.

If they had followed Randall’s advice (as learned from our efforts to rescue the loose catamaran at Fernandina Beach), they probably could have tied the dinghies alongside and pulled the boat clear of the rocky shore without any additional help except that in a panic, one of the guys who had jumped on the yacht and decided to drop the anchor which promptly got tangled up in the rocks.  Dropping an anchor off the stern to stop the boat going any further forward into the rocks would have made some sense but there did not seem to be much logic to dumping one off the bow.  Luckily, the crew of one of the working boats (the ones that run staff and supplies out to the anchored ships) saw what was going on and after attaching a line to the stern off French Kiss, held it off the rocks until the anchor (which could not easily be dislodged) was tied off to a float and disconnected from the yacht.  By this time the motor was started and once away from the shore she returned to where she had been moored or anchored (we were not quite sure which) and the spare anchor was set.

In the middle of this melee the owner arrived in another dinghy asking the guys that Olivier had put aboard (at least one of whom was living on French Kiss) what was going on.  We never really discovered the exact details but understand that either a mooring or anchor line chafed through and the boat was blown towards the shore while no one was aboard.  We assume that any damage to the keel or hull from the rocks was not serious as the boat was not being pounded by waves and it subsequently remained in the bay without apparently taking on water.

Not knowing anything to the contrary, we wondered if they were on a mooring similar to ours.  If they had just pulled a single line through the loop in the massive, marine-life-encrusted rope to which the mooring float was attached, the drag of the boat in the wind and the sawing action from the waves could easily have worn through the line.  We looked over the bow at our mooring and reassured ourselves that we had two independent lines attached to the large ring at the bottom of the metal float (it looked like an old boiler) which was secured to the loop in the massive mooring rope.  What could go wrong?

The wind increased that afternoon and blew pretty steadily as we entertained Mike and Dede for the evening, swapping boat rescue stories and looking at each other’s whale shark photos and at their videos of both whale sharks and some huge manta rays they had been lucky enough to see feeding at the water surface in Las Perlas.  The wind continued from the NW all night and most of Monday morning while we went to the Port Captain’s Office to renew our Cruising Permit (for what we were told was our last 3 months allowed) followed by a trip to a grocery store.  When we eventually returned to the boat at lunch time, the wind suddenly calmed down to glassy stillness.  So as Randall got ready to resume work on the windlass, all the moored boats around us gently drifted in various directions depending upon the slight water currents.

These currents were a little more noticeable than usual because with the full moon on Sunday, there were extreme spring tides with lows of 2.7 feet below the zero datum (mean of lowest monthly low tides) and highs of +17.7 ft for a total tidal range of 20.4 ft.  This made the bay, and the positions of the boats in it, look quite different at each extreme, and at the lowest tides made the ramp from the floating dinghy dock to the shore very steep indeed. 

During the lull in the wind, I could hear something tapping on the hull so I went to investigate, thinking that the dinghy was caught alongside instead of floating off the stern.  Instead, I saw with some irritation that the dreaded metal mooring float was, for the first time, knocking against our precious hull paint.  Determined to minimize the scratches that might result from such unwelcome contact, I used the boat hook to lift off the wet line that was draped over the top of the float and which I assumed was the reason for our unusual position that caused the float to hull contact.  Strangely, as soon as I had done this not only did the float move obediently away from the hull but it continued to distance itself from Tregoning for a length of time and at a pace that seemed highly suspicious.  I quickly pulled up to two lines that were still firmly attached to our bow cleats only to discover with some alarm that their ends were no longer attached to anything else, least of all to the receding mooring float.

Being dead calm with only a little tidal current to move us around, we were in no imminent jeopardy of hitting any other boats or drifting ashore.  So I started Tregoning’s engine to keep her in place while Randall used the dinghy to reattach the lines to the massive mooring rope, this time far below the metal float.  The latter had a liberal covering of barnacles on its bottom so we assume that this had eventually chafed through the inch-thick lines as they passed from their attachment to the ring at the bottom of the float to our boat.  The new configuration tended to bring the metal float closer to the hull, so we then had to arrange three of our fenders as a buffer between the metal float and our hull.  Eventually, when Randall had finished working on the deck-holes for the windlass, we attached ourselves to the mooring line with anchor chain so that we could keep further away from the dreaded metal float and not have to worry about any of the lines chafing.

The real question is, how can the wind have been blowing and causing noticeable wave action for almost 20 hours (during the latter part of which we were miles away from the boat) but Tregoning only became detached from her mooring when conditions were flat calm and I was looking to see what was making us tap against the float?  As they would say in Florida, are we lucky, or what?  It could so easily have been a very rude awakening in the night.

And then, the following day (Tuesday March 2nd), yet another boat found itself adrift in the crowded bay.  This time it was one of the working, supply boats which appeared to lose all steerage and was moving with some momentum but no control between anchored boats. Again, Randall dropped his work on the windlass and joined several other dinghies in providing assistance.  Between them, they had enough power to push the supply boat back to its berth next to a larger tow-boat and luckily it had not collided with any of the anchored yachts.  It does make one wonder what will happen next…

add comment