Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 31st - Grand Cayman - Very Welcoming

Its hard to believe that we've been here 4 days. It is very strange to go from Spanish speaking latin countries where we knew we would get good ceviche and good local beer, because we knew 2 Spanish words, cervesa and ceviche, to Grand Cayman where we are tied up to a mooring just offshore of a Burger King fast food restaurant. I guiltily admit that we have already had 2 burger and fries meals in 4 days.

Arriving and checking in here has been such a pleasant experience. The greeting and welcome from the Port Captain was so professional and 'welcoming', the first Port Captain who has welcomed us into their port. The Customs and Immigration Officers came to our boat to fill in the forms, which they brought with them and would have been happy to photocopy our documents if needed, but we already had that taken care of. The 2 officers, a man and a women kept up a lively conversation in patois we had trouble following, but they included us and we had conversations about our teenage children, who seem to be the same the world over.

We are now tied to a mooring provided by the Port Authority; they prefer we use these rather than damage any of the beautiful coral growing everywhere. The mooring if free. There is a public dock closeby where we can safely leave our dinghy while going ashore.

In the last 4 days we had a day of recovery and a valiant attempt to dry out the boat, 2 days ashore looking for groceries, a marine related store, laundry and a bank. The bank part is a joke, this is the Cayman Islands and of course there are lots of banks. And the Scotiabank here recognises Canadian account holders. There does seem to be a major Canadian business presence here, including Tim Hortons. At the risk of sounding very unworldly we admit that we enjoy seeing all of these symbols of home. We even have 2 TV channels coming through with a clearer picture than we had in Sidney and they're showing TV shows we remember from home.

Yesterday I did my first paid work in a long time. I repaired the mainsail of a boat which is moored near us owned by our newest friends, Lelia and Jeff on Ivory Moon. They are Australians who bought their boat in Florida and are heading in the other direction - going the 'right way'. They were attempting to leave a couple of days ago and ripped out a section of their mainsail. That brought them back for a few days for repairs. Once I had the machine out I repaired our genoa, which was coming apart in quite a few places. In fact what I found was that all of the sun-exposed part of the sail when furled was so brittle that when I pulled too hard on it the actual fabric ripped. So now it has a brand new UV protection strip all around the sail. This is a band of sunbrella fabric about one foot wide all around the leach and foot of the sail. We hope this will extend the life of the sail. If not we have a spare Yankee which though we aren't crazy about will do in a pinch.

We still have a good day's work to do with caulking all of the places that seem to need it, repairing our bow sprit platform which became detached from its frame during all of the upwind pounding it endured, and cleaning the salt off the interior. Fortunately we had a good rain a couple of nights ago which took most of the salt off the exterior. Having been boat dwellers in British Columbia where we have lots of rain we were unprepared for the damage the salt does to EVERYTHING. Its like acid burning away at the stainless, wood, glass, plastic, interior fabric, our skin. Speaking of wood - all of the brightwork which we so lovingly scraped and sanded and cetoled looks terrible. In all of the exposed areas it looks like it has never been done. And that is in just 6 months. Not sure how to deal with it. Just let it all go and scrape the rest off or slap more cetol on to protect the wood knowing that at some point in the future it will all come off again anyway. We have alot of wood, so that decision is hard to make.

So far we have not had time to venture too far into the island, but we intend to remedy that by renting a car for a day to have a good look around. We must say however that right from our boat here we are in the most beautiful water I have ever seen. It is so clear and blue, torquoise where the white sand is and darker blue where the coral is. The water is teaming with fish.

2 days ago Tony and I were cleaning the bootstripe of the boat, which needs to be done every couple of weeks - not an unpleasant job if you like to be in the water, which we do. I was working on the sunny side. The boat was pitching quite alot, so when I got the side done I swam around the other side to find Tony just about to exit. I had by mask on so when I looked underwater I saw a huge fish just hanging there in the shade watching us. I recognised it just by its attitude. I called to Tony to come back in and have a look at this huge fish - it was about 4 feet long - and he confirmed it as a baracuda and we both got out of the water really fast, he behind me pushing me up the ladder. Its hard to climb our ladder with fins on - but not impossible. It stayed with us for awhile and though people say they will not bother anyone they look menacing enough not to take any chances.

We also snorkelled a couple of hundred yards away from our boat on a wreck of a big ship. Its marked with red floats all around it. Its all there but it is completely broken up and sitting on the bottom in about 15 feet. That was a great place to snorkel, lots of really interesting fish, a few very big tarpin, which gave me a bit of a fright initially as I thought they were baracuda, a many species I have never seen before.

On the way back we swam over coral reefs which are everwhere, and we saw a couple of big lobsters running along the sand. There is a fishing restriction in the harbour so these creatures are not constantly hiding.

We have changed our plans about Cuba which was to be our next destination. As we need to be leaving the Caribbean by the last week or so of May we have decided to head from here to Antigua, which will be our jumping off point for the Atlantic crossing. This will likely be another upwind bash which we don't look forward to, but it will mean we'll have a few weeks rest and repair time before heading out. We will also have the opportunity to stop into Puerto Rico where we should be able to do major provisioning as they have a Costco.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Arrived in Grand Cayman - in one piece

Arrived at Grand Cayman – Yeah! Halleluyia – thank God I’m alive and that ‘YOU’ listened to my prayers through all of those lonely night watches when I sat at the edge of the bench in our cockpit for 3 hours watching the towering waves heading towards us and then leaving us sometimes to shudder in their wake, my job which I will not shirk no matter how nervous I am – which is to do a 360 degree search of the seascape to ensure our safety every 15 minutes. If there is something to deal with, such as a large freighter or an incredibly well lit cruise ship that’s a bonus, because now I have something to do other than worry and pray. I get to watch the ship through my binoculars to see whether its direction effects me at all. If it does then I want to know when I should start to worry about that fact – radar will tell me that, but mostly I trust my eyes and the fact that I learned what I needed to know about ship identification at night.

So this last 10 days since we left Christobal have kinda outranked what I would have written about Panama.

Just to put that in perspective, we have been through many ports and cities on our route and though we cannot possibly be any kind of authority on any of these locations we still have the right to use the old ‘love at first sight’ test which we all trust because we all love love, and some [places you go have got it and some just don’t. If they have then one takes the time to spend in that place, with those people etc. So I suppose Panama did not have it. We did have a lot to do in Panama and our focus was definitely all about how to get out of Panama and through the canal as soon as possible.
We also didn’t really feel safe in Panama and relied on a driver quite often to get us around. He helped us with our transit and checking in and out procedures in Panama which are quite ridiculous and we did pay a ‘tip’ or call that bribe to have an official in the Port Captain’s office expedite our paperwork more quickly. The supervisor of that office caught our driver and the official in that transaction and told us that we had just basically been ripped off and that this service was free. We let our driver know that we knew and from then on he stopped asking us for tips.
We did a very brief trip around Old Town Panama which is sadly taking a very long time to renovate, but will be absolutely beautiful in about 50 years time if it doesn’t all crumble before they finish it. This is definitely a tourist draw. Unfortunately on the way to Old Town you have to pass through the Barrio district which is a disgusting eye sore or tall tenement buildings which are filthy and completely unkempt. Apparently the inhabitants are all squatters and will not be evicted. The government owns the buildings and keeps up the supply of electricity and water so the squatters stay. Perhaps some of these apartments are kept nice inside but from the outside this is a very scary district to pass through.

en-route - Panama to Grand Cayman

Saturday March 21st – Panama to Grand Cayman

“You’re going the wrong way”, those are the famous lines in the movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles called out by motorists on the ‘right way bound freeway’ over to John Candy and Steve Martin just before they are sandwiched between two juganaut trucks.
We’ve not exactly been squashed between anything, but we are definitely having a very long upwind beat from Panama to Grand Cayman.
We left Shelter Bay Marina last Sunday 15th at noon, and it was clear as soon as we left the Panama Basin breakwater what was in store for us. We left at the beginning of a predicted weather window - 10 – 15 knots of easterly wind. The trades in the Caribbean always run easterly?? Not this week, they’re coming out of the north and sometimes a bit easterly at 15 - 20 and the accompanying waves and swells are keeping us at a steady 2 – 3 knots. Actually I shouldn’t complain, yesterday we sailed all day at almost a close haul and did between 4 – 5 knots.The water is the most beautiful blue – such a bright royal blue and in many places on our course it is quite shallow, even as shallow as 30 feet, which is a bit disconcerting as there are also many charted reefs with lots of little black ships with their little bows up and sterns underwater. We obviously don’t want to join them.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Just about to head into the Caribbean

After 9 days at anchor in La Playita anchorage being tossed around constantly by freighters' wake, pilot boats' wake and just about everyone else who wanted to make the cheapskate yachties unconfortable we got our clearance to go through the canal. We found 3 line handlers to help us, one person per 'corner' line of the boat. A couple we met in the anchorage Sherrell and Eric on the SV Saranah and Jim from SV Gem. They were such good workers and obviously enjoyed the experience as much as we did.

It was a very long day, we got up at 0430 hrs, met with our 'advisor' who came aboard at 0630, locked in to the first lock at 0900, locked out at about 1800 hrs and dropped off our advisor Ivan at 1900 on the flats, which are on the other side of the northern Panama channel, headed over to the other side of the channel to hopefully find room in the only marina left standing, Shelter Bay Marina.

We ducked through all of the hazardous material freighters in the dark, but they are lit up pretty well, and then headed straight for the waypoint we had for the entrance to the marina.

On the way we had our second drama of the trip when we ran aground on an underwater hill which showed as 4 meters deep on the charts. Tony gunned the hell out of the engine in reverse and got us off after alot of praying on my part, and then with all eyes on deck and me on radar and c-map found our way to a secure dock inside the marina.

We are just about to leave here now for Cuba, about 900miles. Looks like a good weather window for about a week, but if we do need to stop we can do so at Providencia and again at Grand Cayman.

There is alot more that I can say about Panama and the preparation for the canal crossing and the people we have met on the way. We have just been very busy. I'll have time on this leg to write and save it in documents. We'll post again when we next get internet.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Islands of Panama - 4th March

Islands of Panama 4th March

Last entry in blog – 21st February – God that seems like such a long time ago, in miles its about 400, in experience it seems like 2000, some good and some bad.
We left Jimenez, our last stop in Costa Rica, heading for Panama, first intended stop Isla Parida, we had a fairly uneventful night trip, mostly motor sailing. There were a couple of anchorages to choose from around the island, but its always a bit of a crap shoot as to what the wind will do after dropping anchor. We chose the first anchorage and got tossed around most of the night. Glad to leave in the morning at 1030 heading for Isla Secas. We were actually having a great sail with 1 reef in the main and full headsail and mizzen, a good beamer doing 5 knots for a few hours, then we hit a pretty wide channel between an island whose name I have forgotten and Isla Coiba, a huge island housing 3 penal colonies and lots of wildlife. Not sure if the prisoners are aloud to interact with the eco-tourists.
This island is well known by yatistas because its anchorages are national park and the park rangers are asking $60 for the boat plus $20 per person for the privelege of anchoring there. Needless to say we declined and carried on very slowly down the channel heading for Isla Secas. We found a beautiful anchorage here between Isla Cavada and an un-named island to the south. We were tucked in beween 2 rocky promontories, but could not avoid the swell. It was uncomfortable but well worth being there. The snorkeling was good and the beach was a gorgeous white sand and coconut palm beach. We were definitely having a Robinson Crusoe type of experience having the island all to ourselves, when another boat sailed in just before sunset. Another Canadian boat. Mistletoe is owned by Chris and Jen who have been away from home for about 5 years and are returning back to the Maple Ridge area. We spent a few hours with them exchanging information, plus we traded our Costa Rica guide book for beer. That’s beginning to become a habit.
Leaving Isla Secas at 0630 on the 26th we expected our next landfall to be Las Perlas islands in the gulf of Panama, having by then passed the notorious Punta Mala. A distance of 250 odd miles which should take us a couple of days and a bit. This started out as an ok motor sailing type of day, but the wind came up and we had a good sail for a few hours. The wind came up some more and we rounded the first point of the Azuera Peninsula with head sail up only and we started to get a taste for what was to become a very long, arduous trip from here on to Las Perlas.
By 0830 on the 27th we were motor sailing into nasty choppy seas, making about 3 knots and feeling tired and hard done by. As this day progressed we started talking to pulling into Benao Cove, the last anchorage before Punta Mala.
At this point I would like to remind the readers that we are not going along blindly hoping the conditions will be favourable. We do receive daily weather faxes which have been predicting 15, maybe 20 knots north-east for the next few days. We also know that in about 3 days the conditions will get worse, and we don’t want to be trying to plough through the gulf when they do.
We pulled into Benao Cove at 1800 on the 27th, it was pretty windy but the seas were flat, and we have confidence in our anchor in such condidions. We pulled right over to the north east corner of the bay aware that we should anticipate approximately 15 foot tides. Just as Tony went up on deck to drop the anchor we were hailed by someone from the shore. Not sure where he was, but there was a big house or resort on the beach, and he wanted to let us know that the anchorage was good, and to welcome us to the bay, for which we were very grateful.
By now Punta Mala had grown in my mind to the proportions of Cape Mendecino in California, and we didn’t have much faith in the weather faxes now either, as the winds we were getting were a lot more that those predicted.
The next 30 miles – 15 up to Punta Mala, we kept in very close to shore in an attempt to reduce the fetch we were getting hit with. The seas were white with spray, we were doing between 2 – 3 knots in winds hovering around 27 knots gusting over 30 frequently. And no sign of improvement. We also knew that at the Point we would have a choice of rounding and staying in close to shore motoring straight into the wind and waves, which would be bigger because there’s no land in the way to reduce them, OR we could sail abeam which would take us further out of the gulf, with little chance of tacking back up into the head on waves.
2 of our guide books written by people who know ahelluvalot more than we do suggested staying in close to shore. This is what we did until we were frustrated enough for me to want to quit and go back. There was nowhere to go to rest and if we didn’t keep going we were lose any progress which we had fought so hard to achieve. We were clawing our way up the shore doing short tacks with a lot more sail up than we were comfortable with. But to reduce sail was to be pushed further back, we needed the power to make way through the very aggressive short chop.
By about 2100 we had climbed up the east shore of the peninsula as far as Isla Iguana when we could take it no more and we headed out into the gulf motor sailing in order to keep our head up and make north east instead of south east. This was definitely a night to remember, not just because of the elements which were very nearly defeating us, but because we were going through pretty busy shipping lanes. We could hear other boats calling the big ships to ask if the ships could see them when it seemed that they were about to collide. Mostly we were not worried about them, at night it is easy to tell the direction and speed of the ships because of their lights and our radar.
At one point when there were about 5 ships to keep our eye on, Tony put out a general call to all traffic, telling them of our position and our speed and direction and invited the ships to respond if there was any conflict. We noticed one of them changed his direction and we were fine.
We arrived at 1607 on March 1st in San Jose, the closest Perlas Island in the group. This island is supposedly owned by 2 aging German hippies who landed there 20 odd years ago. It’s a huge, beautiful, rugged island and I can’t imagine how a couple of hippies could afford to own it. Have to check it out on Google. Out of 5 boats in this anchorage 3 were Canadian. We didn’t get to meet anyone here, we had only stopped to sleep, which we did very grateful that the ordeal of the last 24 hours was over.
We have an admission to make – by San Jose the only alcohol we had on the boat was the bottle of champagne that Kevin and Betty had given us to celebrate crossing the Equator. We felt we deserved it now, and I think they would think so too, so we put it in the freezer and while I made us a nice spaghetti dinner it reached the right temperature and we really enjoyed drinking it before hitting the sack.
By now our supplies of everything are running very low, and coming up with interesting food is quite challenging. My mother instilled in me that it is always important to have a contented stomach, and I believe this is very true for sailors at sea. When things get so bad that I don’t think I can prepare a meal let alone eat one, I always push myself to make something that will produce a contented stomach, one less body part to worry about.
But we need provisions, and we need them more than we need to see these gorgeous islands. We headed for Contadora which is the most inhabited of Las Perlas islands, and what a gorgeous place it is. Obviously many of the rich Panamanians have fabulous homes there, the anchorage was just sheltered from the north easter which was still blowing, landing the dinghy wasn’t too bad. The beach was so steep that Tony was able to just run the engine right up onto the beach and I jumped out hardly even wetting my feet.
We met a couple of very interesting people who as they were walking down the road towards to beach, Shelley fell headfirst down a 2’ step, and fortunately didn’t hurt herself, partly due to her youth and partly due to a high level of inebriation. We helped Anders, her friend to pick her up and brush her off, found out they were on a 65’ Swan, had a brief chat and Shelley invited us back to the boat for drinks.
After our little walk to the shops – make that shop – where we did find milk, eggs and more importantly beer we went back to their boat, shared some beer, drank a lot of their wine and found out they are the delivery crew for the owners of this boat, Geronimo.
What a life Anders has, he is the resident skipper and moves the boat around the world meeting the owners wherever they want to go. Shelley is also the resident hostess/steward. And whenever they have passages to make they bring on more crew, they usually travel with a crew of 5. So they travel extensively to many parts of the world, all living expenses covered and they get paid very good salaries to do so.
Their boat owners sound like very nice people, they even allow them to have their own guests on board when the owners don’t need the boat.
So after a couple of days in Contadora we are now headed for La Playita, a bit anchorage outside of Panama City, where we need to do a bit of boat work, find things the boat needs, get supplies, find an agent to help us through the canal, and prepare to go through to the other side. We are pretty excited about this prospect. It’s a big step, and once through we are only about 800 miles from the beginning of crossing the Atlantic.
We’ve just arrived in Panama City, anchored outside in an anchorage with about 50 other yachts, and now the games of trying to transit the canal begin.I’ll keep you posted.

Jimenez - Las stop in Costa Rica

Last stop in Costa Rica – Jimenez

As we wanted to leave Costa Rica for Panama during the night, timing our arrival in Isla Parida around mid-day, we sailed across Gulfo Dulce from Golfito to Jimenez, which would give us an open bay to leave rather than the more complicated channel heading out of Golfito.

Our cruising guide told us that we would be welcome at the Parrot Bay Resort who have a great pier and dock where we expected to leave our dinghy. One of their security people came by to let us know that though we could anchor where we were we could not go ashore on their dock as it was privado/private. So we took the dinghy ashore with our lap-top to look for an internet café. Landing was easy and we walked in the direction of Parrot Bay Resort, which was very aptly named as we saw many Macaw parrots, the big red green yellow and blue parrots that make a helluvalot of noise. We tried to get some video of them. We stood under their trees watching and talking to them. They are very interactive and like to show off by hanging upside down. And they are so colourful.
No internet in that direction so off we went to El Centro and found a soccer pitch, game in progress and most of the town standing and sitting around the pitch and more Macaw squawking like crazy to keep up with the cheering of the spectators.

We did not find a bar with internet which is our preference, but we did find an internet office with the atmosphere of a doctor’s waiting room. A couple of hours later we looked around for a store, but being Sunday they were all closed. We did however find a bar – and what a bar, run by 2 of the raunchiest women I’ve seen anywhere, drinking and joking with their already very drunk customers, and a few groups of people seated at tables, a couple with their baby and another with a small child, all drinking and having a good old time. Several men in the bar introduced themselves to us including a man called Jose who explained to us by holding his hand at his crotch and pumping it in what looked like (you know what) that he was a bull-rider and that he was only drinking water because he was riding that afternoon. Well he certainly had been drinking something other than water for the first half of that day.
We finished that day walking back to our dinghy through what seemed like hoards of eco-tourists. Eco-tourism seems to be what Costa Rica is hanging its hopes on, and I really question how serious their commitment is when there is so much garbage everywhere on the beaches and so many vehicles speeding through the towns, and the parks packed with guide driven tourists all expecting to see the animal wildlife in its natural habitat. Also – where are all the dolphins? Dolphins seem to love to play around boats, but maybe they are discouraged by the fishermen here.
So here we sit now at Isla Parida, our first stop in Panama, a very rolly anchorage, our first passage since leaving Costa Rica and we’ve been visited by dolphins, lots of dolphins which makes us very happy.