Monday, April 8, 2019

Islas Revillagigedos


 Isla San Benedicto

The Revillagigedos (ray-VEE-ya-hee-hay-dose) Islands, which were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, are a remote archipelago about 300 miles west of Mexico’s mainland and about 250 miles south of Cabo San Lucas.  These islands have held an allure for us ever since we heard fabulous stories from other cruisers of its prodigious collection of diverse marine life.  One cruiser told us of swimming with giant manta rays who would circle their boat, waiting for them to get into the water and then allow them to hold on to their ‘heads’ and take them for rides.  The manta rays seemed to be aware of how the cruisers were equipped:  If they had on scuba gear, the mantas would take them deep, however, if the cruisers had only donned snorkel gear, the mantas would stay near the surface and allow their ‘passengers’ to get air frequently.  According to these cruisers, the manta rays would return them to their boat when the ride was over.  We had no reason to believe this was a fabricated story and we withheld our opinion that it’s inappropriate to touch wild sea life.  But the marine life notwithstanding, the appeal of uninhabited islands far from any shore was a strong enough calling which we could not ignore. 

South end of Isla San Benedicto

The four islands, Clarion, San Benedicto, Roca Partida and Socorro, are Mexican and since they’re also a carefully guarded marine reserve, special permission must be obtained before venturing there.  We knew of dive boats in San Diego, our home town, that would make the 900-mile passage and, once on a visit home, we contacted several to see if they could shed some light on how to go about gaining permission to visit.  Though they seemed willing to help, their descriptions of the permit process were discouraging.  It wasn’t until we returned to the large cruising community of Banderas Bay that we found other cruisers who had successfully negotiated the permit process and were highly encouraging of us making the trip there.  First a National Park permit had to be obtained (download the app) and a fee had to be paid.  Second, send off a series of letters in Spanish to the governing agency in La Paz, promising, among other things, to not fish or go ashore, and wait for their reply, granting permission.  Wait.  Make follow up phone calls.  Wait.  More phone calls.  Wait.  Then, miraculously, the email appears, which allows you to sail west to another unknown destination.

Isla San Benedicto at sunset

The weather off Mexico’s western Riviera had been unusually benign and we waited until there was wind forecast before we left Banderas Bay.  However, even after using nearly a half-dozen on-line forecasting sites and enlisting the help of a weather guru in La Cruz de Huancaxtle, we still found ourselves motoring, despite the forecast for northerly winds of 10-15 knots.  Eventually, the wind did fill in except it was out of the westnorthwest, making it a close-hauled tack, one of our least favored points of sail.  Still, we were making good time and the seas were relatively flat.  After about 48 hours, Isla San Benedicto was in sight and when we arrived at one of the anchorages, our 56-hour passage was completed.

Not more than eight feet down

Isla San Benedicto rises straight up out of a very deep ocean and about a mile offshore it’s still over 2,000 feet deep.  The island itself is a moonscape devoid of any vegetation, a solid mound of volcanic ash, with thousands of valleys carved down its gray, 2.5-mile length.  We dropped our anchor in what had been described to us as an acceptable anchorage but after a minute, we pulled it up and went looking for something with less swell action.  On the south end of the island is another anchorage and it was obviously preferred as there were two other boats there, the 105-foot, Undersea Hunter, clearly a dive boat and the 236-foot, Rocinante, an elegant, gleaming megayacht.  Unfortunately, Rocinante was anchored right where our friends had told us to drop our hook and with their size, they took up a large percentage of the anchorage (their beam is equal to Rutea’s length).  We pulled in as close as we felt comfortable but when we dropped our anchor it landed on rock.  By this time it was getting late in the day and finding another anchorage was nearly impossible.  We tried reanchoring but again could only find rock.  I donned my snorkel gear and went to look but with the late afternoon sun and the rock being the exact same color of our anchor and chain, I couldn’t determine if we were precariously anchored or not.  If the anchor didn’t hold, the worst that would happen is we would drift harmlessly out to sea.  If the anchor became jammed in the rock, it was only 30 feet down to free it.  We spent a calm night there, both of us sleeping deeply for many hours.

West coast of Isla Socorro

The morning was clear, calm and we made preparations to leave for Isla Socorro, about 35 miles to the south.  With the thousands of anchor retrievals that Ruthie and I have done, our procedure is pretty routine.  I’m on the bow, she’s at the helm and we communicate effectively with hand signals, eliminating the need for shouting which can sometimes be interpreted as anger.  Even though we have anchored in some difficult places, the anchor has always come up albeit sometimes requiring some coaxing from a combination of pressure with the windlass and the force of the boat in either forward or reverse or both.  Except this time.  Despite our best efforts, the anchor refused to budge and the horrendous jerking that was being applied to both the anchor and the windlass was painful to me.

Rutea anchored inside of Punta Tosca

Okay, this leaves us the option of me diving down to try to free the anchor, which I have never had to do.  Whereas I know people who can easily free dive to 80 feet or more below the surface, I’m good to about 8 feet and even there only for a short time.  Free diving to 30 feet and wrestling a 66-pound anchor is impossible for me.  On board, we do keep a complete scuba set and when we were in Panama, I had sent our scuba tank out to be hydro-tested and filled – now I was grateful that I had done so.  I hadn’t used any of the equipment since we were in Namibia many years ago and then it was a very shallow dive to free a friend’s anchor.

Ruthie and Eliza

Ruthie and I started to pull the equipment together.  I got the scuba tank and weight belt out of the lazarette while Ruthie searched for the Buoyancy Control Device (the flack-jacket-look-alike that holds the scuba tank and provides buoyancy to float a diver on the surface, over coming the sinking effects of the lead weights) and the dive regulator, which connects the scuba tank to the diver’s mouth.  We had everything ready to go except the absolutely-necessary regulator.  I was on the aft deck and was talking to Ruthie who was in the aft cabin, tearing everything apart, desperately looking for the octopus-like regulator.  The 2-foot by 2-foot hatch was propped open with a piece of slim teak trim as the friction hinges had worn out years before.  I was poking my head down the hatch, trying to offer Ruthie ‘encouragement’ and ‘advice’ on where else the elusive regulator might be.  Inadvertently, I knocked the teak trim supporting the hatch out of place and the hatch dropped quickly, hitting the back of my head, forcing my lower lip to smack sharply against the hatch dog.  My lip burst open and blood spurted down my chin like a river.  Great.  Now I still have to dive into the waters that are known to be frequented by sharks with a bleeding lip.

Clarion angelfish Holacanthus clarionensis

After literally tearing the entire boat apart, we finally found the hidden regulator (it wasn’t where our inventory book said it was supposed to be) and we lowered the dinghy as it makes an easier place to get in and out of the water with dive gear on.  With the scuba tank attached to the BCD, I pressed the inflate button and the BCD filled with air – until I heard a ‘pop’ and the BCD quickly deflated.  No matter how much air I forced into the BCD, it wouldn’t hold any pressure.  Frantic, I poured over the little-used BCD, looking for a hole that might have formed during any one of our long passages but couldn’t find any.  As a last resort, I took apart the pressure relief valve and found that it had stuck open.  A quick wipe with my finger across the sealing surface, I reassembled it and it then held pressure.  Whew!  That could have been a show-stopper.  Then I loaded sixteen pounds of weights onto my weight belt and slipped into the water, no wetsuit necessary.  I floated like a cork, even with my BCD deflated.  Frustrated and unwilling to go back to the boat to load more weights, I forced my way down the anchor chain to where the anchor lay jammed against the rocks.

Silky Shark Carcharhinus falciformis

Once on the bottom, I could see that the anchor was wedged between two large rocks but it didn’t seem impossible to free it.  I had taken a length of ½” line with me to rig as a trip line but I didn’t need it.  As I got in position to lift the anchor, my hands briefly slipped off.  Now, I started to float upwards quickly as my weight belt was too light.  Frantically, I swam towards the anchor chain so I could arrest my upward trajectory.  Going quickly from 30 feet to the surface probably wouldn’t have been bad but my training told me to avoid it at all costs.  I forced my way back down to the anchor, muscled it out of its crevice and using the anchor chain, controlled my ascent to the surface, where Ruthie was ready with her foot on the windlass up switch, waiting for my go-ahead signal.

Humpback cow with her breaching calf

With our anchor properly secured in its home on the bow roller, we pointed Rutea south towards Isla Socorro, the largest of the four islands.  The wind filled in to about 25 knots out of the north and we had a good, fast sail, covering the 35 miles in about 5 hours.  Isla Socorro looks nothing like its sibling to the north as it’s covered with green hills and steep black rock cliff faces.  We left Roca O’Neal to port and made our way around the end of Punta Tosca, entering the relatively calm water where two boats lay at anchor.  Friends of ours had given us specific coordinates of where to anchor and promised that we would find a sand bottom with good holding, despite it being almost 90 feet deep.  We honed in on the waypoint and I lowered the anchor only to find more rock.  We upped the anchor and tried a slightly different location.  More rock.  I retrieved the anchor again and Ruthie had a VHF radio conversation with Eliza on the Fraser 41, Serafina, who suggested that if we anchor right behind them, we’re likely to find sand.  Her husband, Ted, said that he had dove from their boat to shore and it was sand almost the entire way.  Our third time was a charm – I paid out almost all of Rutea’s 350’ of 3/8” high-test chain - and even though we would have liked to be further in towards the cliffs with hopefully more protection, we were comfortable enough although it was no where near idyllic ‘mill pond’ conditions.  We invited Ted and Liza over for sundowners and discovered that they hail from Eugene, Oregon, which was once our home and from where Ruthie earned her under-graduate degree.  Ted and Liza offered to take us snorkeling the next day.

Needlefish found on deck

During my morning tour of the deck I found an unfortunate flying fish that met its demise after landing on our deck.  Without much thought, I tossed it overboard and within about 5 seconds, an 8-foot long silky shark came up and ate it.  The shark was soon joined by a friend and the two circled around Rutea for hours.  After our morning chores were completed, we hailed Ted and Liza on the VHF to see if their offer to show us some snorkeling sites was still good.  They were up for it and we dinghied over to them in the early afternoon where Eliza joined us in our dinghy and Ted put his dive gear in their dinghy.  We motored a short distance to a corner formed by the sheer rock cliffs, dropped the hook and slipped into the remarkably clear water.  Ted took off on a dive by himself but Ruthie, Eliza and I just snorkeled in a small area, delighted with the amount of sea life we could see.

Pakia Tea arriving

Several days passed and we developed a routine:  Coffee and the single-side band nets first thing in the morning, chores, snorkel in the early afternoon and sundowners in the early evening.  Various dive boats would come and go, none spending the night.  On one of our snorkeling excursions, we took our respective dinghies to the far east side of the bay, just for a change of pace.  As we approached, a humpback cow and her calf appeared about 100 feet in front of us and despite her gentle movements, her mammoth size was intimidating.  We stopped our forward movement but left our outboards running, hoping that the noise they generated would keep her apprised of our location.  Once she and her calf sounded, we continued to make our way east but we spotted a giant manta ray just a few seconds later and Ted slipped in the water with his camera, intending to get some up close and personal shots of the remarkably graceful swimmer.  The ray eluded Ted but it did go back by the dinghy where Eliza was waiting and with a powerful whip of one of its wings, gave her a generous salt water shower.  Eliza was quite surprised and I laughed much too loudly to be polite.  I stifled my laughter quickly, though, as I saw a large shark approach our dinghy.  “Shark!” I said quickly and Eliza got Ted’s attention (who was still in the water) and she pressed both her hands together on top of her head, apparently the symbol of a shark in the water.  Ted, nonplussed, made no hurry to get back to his dinghy.

Piece of resin spreader used to repair cracked fin
With Ted back in his dinghy, we continued towards our intended snorkeling spot and were discussing whether to anchor the dinghies or just tow them as we snorkeled.  In the brief time we were talking about it, three large silky sharks showed up and began milling around the two dinks.  Theoretically, silkies are unlikely to be aggressive towards humans but when you get a group of them together, one can egg on another and then another can join in on the fun and before you know it, they’ve gotten out of control.  Collectively, none of us were interested in snorkeling around three large silkies and we made our way back across the bay to our standby snorkeling location where we felt more comfortable.

Tom, Sonja and Keanu on Pakia Tea

We had been in touch with our good friends aboard the 44-foot Wharrem cat, Pakia Tea, by email and we were delighted once they rounded Punta Tosca and anchored just ahead of us.  This was to be our fourth rendezvous with them since we had met originally in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and we always enjoy their company, especially that of 6-year old Keanu.  Sonja, Keanu’s mother, has a long list of skills and accomplishments that includes being a marine biologist, a recorded classical singer and a terrific chef so Ruthie and I didn’t hesitate when she invited us over for coffee and cake just shortly after they had the anchor down.  It was great to be back aboard Pakia Tea again and brought back pleasant memories of playing dominoes on their massive dining table that sits in between the two hulls on warm nights anchored off of some remote atoll in the Maldives.

Bahia Frailes, Baja California Sur

We had been keeping a close eye on the weather and had intended to sail back to Banderas Bay but when we saw a forecast with two days of light winds, it gave us the idea of motoring due north to Baja California.  The bay at Cabo San Lucas was closest at about 250 miles but it’s not one of our favorite places so we set a course for Bahia Frailes, of which we have fond memories, which was almost 300 miles away.  We expected that we’d have to motor the entire way but if we had sailed back to Banderas Bay, we probably would have had to motor from there north anyway.  After saying goodbye to our friends on Pakia Tea, we left in the late afternoon, heading straight into the gentle swells.  By midnight of the following day, a northwest wind filled in and we were able to cut the engine and sail, albeit close hauled, for about the next 12 hours, until we fell into the wind shadow created by Baja California.  The engine came back on and in the flat calm conditions Ruthie and I made ourselves busy by wiping the boat down, cleaning the salt off of her and making her more presentable.  It turned out to be a silly thing to do because once we rounded Punta Gorda, the wind filled in from the north at 27 knots and soon Rutea was pounding into steep, close-together waves.  Even with the engine running at three-quarters throttle, sometimes we were down to just two knots of speed and it took us almost eight hours to cover the last 20 miles.  The good news was that Bahia Frailes offered excellent protection and with the moon almost full, we were able to furl the main and drop the anchor without turning on the deck lights.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Completion of Our Circumnavigation

Sunrise on December 16, 2018, when we completed our circumnavigation, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle
When I reflect on our recently-completed circumnavigation, the thought that recurs most often is that I must have been crazy to first, even consider such an undertaking and second, actually attempt it.  Who, in their right mind, would set sail from a wonderful home and community, towards the unknown that is fraught with perils?  Yet, at the same time, some of the memories of the remarkable experiences force me to shake my head in disbelief:  Did we really do those things?

My emotions are much more settled now that some time has passed since we crossed our outgoing track.  When Ruthie and I dropped Rutea’s anchor at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, very early on the morning of December 16, 2018, we fell into each other’s arms and sobbed.  Almost eight years, over 48,000 miles and 38 countries and we were back to where we had started.  The anxiety we felt as we were heading out of Punta de Mita eight years earlier was entirely justified – heading off to distant lands in a small sailboat where we’re completely on our own to find our way, make our repairs and be responsible for our own survival.  There would be no 911 to call if something happened and even if we could reach the Coast Guard in an emergency, there’s no way they could ever respond.  Not only did we survive, we flourished.
Hiva Oa, Marquesas

Police in Western Samoa
We did find our way, from the towering peaks of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas (they create their own weather and are almost always obscured by clouds) to the gin-clear water of the Tuamotus;  from the drop-dead gorgeous women of the Society Islands (even the men are remarkably handsome) to the skirt-wearing police (the ‘skirts’ are called ‘lava-lavas’ and they’re the official uniform) of the Samoas to the magical Kingdom of Tonga.  From the over-the-top friendly people in New Zealand to the kava rituals in Fiji;  from the very primitive Vanuatu Archipelago (also credited as the happiest people in the world) to Australia (where it seems like everything is trying to kill you).  
Orangutan, Kalimantan, Indonesia
Fussaru, Maldives
From the 14,000-island nation of Indonesia to the high-end shopping malls of Singapore;  from the multiple cultures of Malaysia to the delicious foods of Thailand (it was also very hot in Thailand – Bangkok is the warmest national capital in the world);  from the tea plantations of Sri Lanka (Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972) to the unrivaled water
clarity of the Maldives;  from the lemurs of Madagascar (the poorest
country we visited) to the amazing game parks of South Africa;  from the huge flamingo colonies of Namibia to the isolation of St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic and from there across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean to the United States.  If our transit of the Panama Canal hadn’t been so intense, we likely would have become emotional as we once again entered the Pacific.

Tanna Island, Vanuatu
The people we met (some who cried openly when we left), the vistas we saw (one evening we stood on the edge of an erupting volcano in Vanuatu), the wildlife we encountered (I got to hold hands with a wild orangutan in Borneo) – these things have produced profound and indelible memories.   However, I feel that what we learned about our planet, its inhabitants (both human and otherwise), it’s flora (both above ground and underwater) and the dangers we face as a civilization trying to survive have had the most substantial impact on me.
The unbelievable acts of kindness shown to us by complete strangers, many of them facing depressing levels of poverty, was both heartrending and an important lesson.  The child in Madagascar, clothed only in rags, who paddled a crude dugout canoe to give us a single lime as a gift of welcome expected nothing in return (we showered him with provisions from our stores).  I hope that I am now a more generous person.

Tom, Sonja and Keanu
While we were in the Maldives, we had the good fortune to meet a young cruising family where the parents were both marine biologists.  As we snorkeled and dove together in water with 20+ meters of visibility, they would explain what we were seeing and why.  When we marveled at the spectacular colors of the coral, they told us that it was a bad sign; that it meant the coral was dying.  Sure enough, not four weeks later, the only coral we could find was a dull brown and lifeless.  The loss of coral worldwide should frighten everyone as the delicate ecological balance has been severely tipped into a cataclysmic direction and its consequences, while yet unknown completely, could have drastic impacts on our future.

However, the anxiety of our planet’s future could be offset by the vibrancy of a
Port Antonio, Jamaica
local outdoor market, which is often the social networking places for a rural community.  Rows of vendors, selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables (you can buy eggplant almost anywhere in the world) to the latest CDs, would hawk their wares in a cacophony of shouting.  Even though we would usually buy far more than we needed, we don’t feel that anyone ever took advantage of us or our lack of knowledge of their monetary system.  Samples were continuously offered to us, making it difficult to refuse to buy some of their product.  We must have been laughable as we would waddle through the streets, overloaded with bags, perspiring in the tropical heat, making our way towards our dinghy.

Pacific Ocean

Indian Ocean
My spirits were also buoyed by the awesome hours, days and weeks of fabulous sailing.  I would get so excited being alone on watch in the earliest morning hours, a full moon reflecting on the wind-whipped sea,  the sails being ironed flat by the wind, the rigging groaning under the load, white caps crashing just off the stern, the boat charging ahead at hull speed and it being warm enough that I was comfortable just wearing a pair of shorts.  This was my bell ringing.  Of course, we spent a lot of time with very light winds and we motored far more than we would have liked.  Fortunately, we only rarely encountered strong winds and they never put us in any danger but they sure could make things uncomfortable.

At times, the frustrations we would face could be very demoralizing and I slowly learned to handle them better.  There were occasions when all you could do was laugh when one catastrophe would cascade into another, a domino effect that would leave us saying, “Why are we doing this?”  Since our boat is old and was built before the advent of many modern sailing conveniences, when builders still thought that making things heavy made them better, I would often struggle with my lack of upper body strength, trying to man-handle some recalcitrant component, my feeble attempts turning my frustration into rage.  I am still learning that if I set my expectations so that I’m aware that these battles are going to take place, I do better.  However, from time to time I still embarrass myself with childish tantrums and long streams of bad words.

I will be forever grateful to have had the time to spend with my daughter, Corie.  She was aboard for three years, leaving from San Diego with us and jumping ship in Singapore.  Her blog is fabulous as she’s a very skilled writer.  We got along extremely well and the bumps in our relationship along the way never did any lasting damage.  As an avid surfer, however, we were looking for two completely different conditions:  She was always looking for big seas and no wind while Ruthie and I were looking for wind with flat seas.  Regardless, our cross purposes never became a contested issue.

Sailing Around Cape Horn with Mark and Rosie
One of the aspects of our circumnavigation that will forever be treasured with the many people we met with whom deep, long-lasting friendships developed.  Virtually all of these friendships were with other
Beth and Norm
cruisers and while I wish we had met more local people, it rarely seemed to happen.  However, the intensity of our friendships with other cruisers, those with whom we had so many shared experiences, has left us with an enormous ‘family’ that we care about.  Many of these friends we’re in constant contact with and some have come to visit us and we have visited with others.

Isla San Benito, Mexico
I do not know how much long distance cruising Ruthie and I will do in the future.  It’s entirely possible that after we’ve been home a while an itch will develop that can only be scratched by once again casting off the dock lines and sailing towards the horizon but this remains to be seen.  On the other hand, I can easily imagine enjoying the company of family and friends from the comforts of our home and community.  Regardless of where we are, the memories of our travels will provide us with hours of reflection on a risk taken with a fabulous outcome and an important part of a life well lived.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Panama Canal Transit

In Jimmy Cornell’s book, World Cruising Routes, he says that the best way to sail from Panama to the United States is via Hawaii, a distance of over 5,000 nautical miles.  Of course, once you’ve arrived in Hawaii, you still have over 2,200 nautical miles to get back to North America.  On the other hand, a vessel can choose to follow the coast of Central America and Mexico, a total distance of about 2,700 nautical miles between Panama and San Diego.  Cornell says the best month to follow that route is in November as it’s a transitional month between the rainy and dry seasons.  The ‘Christmas Winds’ of December are notorious for very strong headwinds that can last for weeks at a time.  Armed with this information, we decided to schedule our Panama Canal transit for November 1.
Enter Your Own Caption
The very first decision we had to make was whether to hire an agent or do the paper work ourselves.  Granted, an agent was going to cost several hundreds of dollars but in the end, we felt it was worth it.  A short-lived bidding war took place between two highly-recommended agents but we chose to hire Roy Bravo and he immediately swung into action.  Less than a day after we agreed to hire Roy, the ‘admeasurer’ from the Panama Canal Authority was on board Rutea, who measured out to be slightly over 53 feet, her davits and dinghy being the culprit of our extended length and forcing us into the next higher rate category.  Among the documents that I had to sign was a statement that essentially said that Rutea wasn’t designed or built to take the rigors of a Canal transit and that the Canal Authority had no liability if she was damaged or destroyed while in transit.

The Canal Authority requires that in addition to the skipper, a yacht transiting the Canal must have four line handlers.  Roy, our agent, offered to provide us with professional line handlers at a cost of US$150 each, which we considered – having professionals do a potentially dangerous job had its attractions.  On the other hand, feeding and berthing four men that we didn’t know for two days wasn’t that appealing.  Many cruisers actively search for boats making the transit and they volunteer their services as line handlers so as to gain experience before they make the transit in their own yachts.  We made it known around Shelter Bay Marina that we were looking for volunteer line handlers.
Cécile and Sylvain on the right, Roger and Amy on the left
Miraflores Lock
We had met Roger and Amy on the Pacific Seacraft 40, Shango, when we were in the Marquesas.  They completed their circumnavigation about a year ahead of us and we rendezvoused with them when we were visiting Gloucester, Massachusetts.  They continued to cruise and coincidentally were in Shelter Bay Marina at the same time we were.  Needless to say, they’re very skilled yachtspeople and we’re very fond of them.  They introduced us to Cécile and Sylvain on the 44-foot catamaran, Stella Maris, who were eager to make a Canal transit before they took their own boat through.  We agreed to take Cécile and Sylvain on as line handlers and encouraged Roger and Amy to come along as well although since they had already completed a transit in their own boat, there was little incentive for them to join us.  After some gentle cajoling, though, Roger and Amy agreed to be line handlers for us.

I scheduled a meeting with our line handlers for the day before our transit.  My agenda for the meeting included demonstrations for line routing options, line throwing and safety concerns.  Down below, I pointed out fire extinguisher locations and other safety equipment.  We gave the cabin assignments and each person was issued a Rutea t-shirt, the official but optional uniform for the transit.

Roy Bravo appeared with the six huge Poly-Form fenders and four 125-foot lines that he was loaning us.  The schedule was to meet our Canal Authority-assigned advisor (all yachts under sixty-five feet have an advisor aboard – over sixty-five feet have a pilot) at the ‘Flats’ at 1700 hours on the first of November.  Roy told us that we needed to have a hot meal ready for our advisor when he boarded our boat, that the advisor would only drink bottled water and failure to have an adequate meal might lead the advisor to order a meal, have it delivered and send us the bill!  Ruthie knocked herself out, preparing a huge, elaborate meal along with a table piled high with grab-and-go snacks:  Home-made hummus, fresh-baked cookies, fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, etc.
The Janet C Shared the Gatun Locks
with us

We cast off the dock lines at about 1500 hours, once our four line handlers were aboard.  It was a good exercise in developing patience while waiting for our advisor but he did show up eventually.  While we waited for instructions, he spoke rapid-fire Spanish into a private-channel handheld radio.  He explained to us that we were supposed to go through the Gatun Locks rafted up to a 65-foot catamaran but the owner of the cat adamantly refused to be rafted up to us.  This meant that all four of our line handlers were going to have to be responsible for managing each respective line (had we rafted up, two of the line handlers would have had nothing to do) and it meant that the Canal Authority was going to have to supply twice the number of staff to take us through.

It was well after dark as we approached the first of the Gatun Locks.  The Janet C, the freighter that was going through the locks the same time we were, entered first, followed by the cat and then us.  The Canal workers on shore heaved weighted ‘monkey’s fist’ at us, to which we attached the heavy 7/8” line that Roy Bravo had loaned us.  The walls of the canal towered above us, dwarfing Rutea and intimidating me.  The massive gates closed silently behind us.  Somewhere, someone moved a lever or pushed a button that opened a valve, allowing 26 million gallons of water to flood the chamber.  The force of all that water rushing in was tremendous and it took a significant amount of effort from our line handlers to keep Rutea centered in the lock.  Interestingly enough, it takes the exact same amount of water to lock a vessel up and down, regardless of its size – in other words, it would take the same amount of water to lock Rutea up and down as it would a mammoth freighter.  The experience was intense but we were able to complete it without any damage or injuries.  Once we were out of the third of the three Gatun Locks, our advisor directed us to a mooring buoy about five miles into Lake Gatun.  He was met by a launch and he departed without so much as a single bite of food.

We were all exhilarated and exhausted but quite hungry and in bad need of liquid refreshments.  Fortunately, I had stuffed the refrigerator and freezer with beer and wine – it was a short time later that the effects of the beer and wine mellowed us to where we were able to enjoy a fabulous meal.  Some of us showered on the aft deck under a garden hose before retiring for the night and it was a very calm night, albeit beastly hot.

The next morning I made coffee and fresh-baked scones for all six of us.  Our new advisor, Reynaldo, showed up and we began steaming across Lake Gatun, the constant freighter traffic requiring us to be on the highest level of alert.  As we approached the Pedro Miguel Lock, our not-so-friendly Canal companion again refused to allow us to raft up to them.  They were allowed to proceed into the lock while we had to wait for another Canal partner to be assigned to us.  The wait delayed us about two hours but we were assigned to a 120-foot tour boat, packed with tourists transiting the Canal just for the experience.  This took virtually all of the effort out of our hands:  Once we were tied up to the tour boat, there was nothing we could do.  Plus, locking down doesn’t involve the massive pressures on a vessel – the water in the lock simply drains out, leaving all vessels in the lock 31 feet lower than when they entered the lock.

As we approached the Miraflores Locks, the horizon began to darken and by the time we were entering the lock, a heavy rain was falling.  Fortunately, there was very little wind involved but, nonetheless, all the work we had to do was in the rain.  There was a significant delay in exiting the final lock as there was a Neopanamax ship (up to 366 meters – up to 1,200 feet) leaving the new Cocoli Locks and we had to wait for it to get out of the way.  It was dark by the time we got back underway and finding a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club was a little difficult.  Once tied to the mooring, though, we indulged in well-deserved, cold liquid refreshments.  The transit had been an enormous success with virtually no damage (one broken bottle of beer) and the only injury was when the advisor was being picked up and eager to get off Rutea, he accidentally stepped on Roger’s toe, tearing off a previously damaged toenail.   Good thing that Roger is tough and he was soon grinning again after a few beers.

The next morning I baked banana nut muffins for breakfast and our very hard-working friends prepared to depart.  We know that our paths will cross again, in some remote anchorage somewhere.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

San Blas Islands

We had been eager to visit the San Blas Islands for years but after our trip to San Diego, where we had a fabulous visit with family and friends, it was more of an effort to develop enthusiasm to sail eastwards, even if it was only 70 miles.  Our Panama Canal transit was weighing on our minds and the thought of only being 2,700 miles from home was a calling that was hard not to hear.  Still, we managed to rustle up the energy to cast off the dock lines (in 25 knots of wind) and sail out of Puerto Colón and into the western Caribbean.  Of course, the wind soon died and we had to motor most of the way to Isla Grande, arriving late on a Saturday afternoon.  There was still enough light left for me to clean the propeller as it was badly fouled with barnacles from sitting in Shelter Bay Marina for so long (cleaning while tied to the dock in Shelter Bay wasn’t an option as there are crocodiles in the water there – we’ve seen them).  It would have been helpful if our built-in hookah was working but after so many years of nonuse, it wouldn’t run so I had to clean the prop by free diving.  Note to self:  Avoid arriving at a tourist destination on a weekend night unless you want to listen to very loud music all night.

The next day was an easy passage to Cayos Chichime and even though some cruisers disdain the location as too popular, it was a delight for Ruthie and me as it represented the quintessential destination:  Clear, warm water, small palm-covered islands, good sand holding, mill pond-like anchoring, no loud music and friendly locals.  One of the big draws for our visit to the San Blas is that they’re populated by the Guna Yala, a people who still live simply, shunning many modern conveniences like electricity.  Of course, there are Guna Yala who use outboard motors on their crudely-built canoes and one family brought us their iPad and iPhone for charging but many still live traditionally.   What is unique and distinctive among the Guna Yala are the beautiful molas that they sew and wear.  Made from layers of brightly colored cloth, the molas are embroidered by hand and can take months to complete.

While still anchored in Cayos Chichime, we were approached by two men in a canoe who asked if they could come aboard and show us their molas.  We found them to be stunning and searched through dozens and dozens before picking out fourteen.  I choked a little as I counted out the cash (Panama uses the US dollar as their currency) but we were delighted with our purchases.  Before leaving, one of the men gave us his card and it read ‘Venancio Restrepo’.  Later, as Ruthie was reading our Lonely Planet guide for Panama, she found a paragraph that said don’t miss the molas made by Venancio Restrepo.

Moving still further eastward we found islands more remote and less populated, both by cruisers and the Guna Yala.  In the Cayos Holandes, we found some excellent snorkeling only to be told later that the area is well populated with crocodiles.  Our snorkeling routine changed immediately and we only went with other cruisers, one of whom would stay in the dinghy, armed with a loud air horn to warn those in the water of an approaching croc.  We never saw one but others had and it was enough to make us cautious.

Throughout our stay we were visited by locals, many times offering us fish, crab or lobster but sometimes just coming by to say hello or ask for a drink of water.  Large, live lobster typically went for US$5 each and one time a group of young men came by with two huge Caribbean crab.  When I asked how much for the crab, one of the men quickly said, “Ten dollars.” and then just as quickly said, “Eight dollars.”  I asked, “Two for fifteen?” and a smile swept across his face as he accepted my offer.  The crabs were so big that I could only cook one at a time in our large, 15-quart pressure cooker.  The crab was fabulous and we ate it for days.

One aspect of the San Blas Islands that we found disappointing was that many cruising boats seem to be abandoned there.  We would see boats that appeared to have had no attention in years, their names and hailing ports erased.  The Guna Yala would be helpless at getting these vessels removed as ownership would be almost impossible to prove and salvaging would be stratospherically expensive.  Granted, there are many responsible cruisers there who have made the San Blas Islands their home (we met one couple who had been anchored in the same spot for thirteen years) but some have taken advantage of the kindness of the Guna Yala and exploited it.  It’s a terrible form of pollution.

On our way back to Shelter Bay Marina, we stopped for the night at Bahia Linton, a spot that is very popular with the cruising fleet – probably over 60 cruising sailboats at anchor.  We had no contact with anyone and left the next morning.  Once we arrived back at Shelter Bay, we learned that three cruising boats had been victims of armed robberies in Bahia Linton just recently.

Back in Shelter Bay, our focus was now on our upcoming transit of the Panama Canal.

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Our approach to Colón, Panamá was both thrilling and intimidating, intensified by occurring at the end of a 4-day passage with little sleep, right at first light on the morning of May 14. We hadn’t seen a fleet of freighters that size since we were in Singapore and maneuvering among them was a true white-knuckle experience.  Regulations required us to contact ‘Cristóbal Signal Station’ on the radio when we were within 2 miles of the entrance to Colón harbor and though they were extremely busy, they gave us explicit instructions.  Entering right behind us through the opening in the 3-mile long breakwater was one of the mammoth Disney cruise ships, which had to slow down to match our snail’s pace of 6 knots so as not to over-run us.  It was a relief to pull into Shelter Bay Marina with its substantial docks, excellent facilities and mill pond-like conditions.  They made us a pretty good offer on an extended-stay rate which we accepted and we got started on the long list of projects we wanted to complete before we left for San Diego.

Shelter Bay Marina is on the grounds of what used to be Fort Sherman, one of two military installations built by the US to provide security for the Panama Canal.  Both installations were turned over to the Panamanian government in 1999 as part of the treaty signed by Jimmy Carter.  However, the Panamanian government either wasn’t interested or didn’t have the resources to maintain the buildings, roads and other aspects of a large, complex installation and the jungle is a powerful force that will overtake whatever it wants unless a great deal of time and effort is spent to keep it at bay.  Wild life abounds in the form of mantled howler monkeys, white-headed capuchin monkeys, sloths, iguanas, crocodiles and lots more.  From our berth at the marina, we could hear the howler monkeys.

Also near the grounds of Fort Sherman is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Fuerte San Lorenzo, a fort built in the 16th century to protect Panama’s Caribbean coast.  We toured the fort which was fascinating but lost count of how many times it was destroyed and rebuilt (I don’t remember who destroyed it the first time but I do remember that Sir Henry Morgan (of the rum fame) destroyed it the second time.).

The majority of cruising sailboats transit the Panama Canal in the December to February time frame and though many slips at the marina were empty, there were still a few cruisers there and they made an effort to maintain a ‘community’.  The morning ‘net’ on the VHF radio was expertly controlled by any one of several volunteers and it seemed to have a pretty good level of participation.  There were daily yoga lessons, water aerobics in the swimming pool and a weekly pot luck dinner.  As with many cruiser communities we’ve become associated with, there were a few people who seemed to be there forever, some that knew everything and some who had nothing to do with anyone.

The Panama Canal Authority requires every yacht that transits the Canal to have at least four line handlers and whereas a transiting yacht can always hire professional line handlers, it’s cheaper and more fun to recruit a fellow cruiser who is interested in gaining the experience before they take their own boat through.  I posted a 3x5 index card on a bulletin board near the marina office that Ruthie and I were available as volunteer line handlers and less than 30 minutes later, there was a knock on Rutea’s hull and there stood Luc, a Belgian who was looking for two line handlers for his 54-foot catamaran.  He invited us for cocktails that night and it was there we met his wife, Elaine.  Luc speaks excellent English but Elaine not so much and their three young children not at all.  Their transit was to be a single-day, meaning there would be no overnight mooring in Lake Gatun.  Since we needed to pick up our Canal Authority-assigned advisor at 0500 at the ‘Flats’, we needed to leave the marina at about 0300.  It was hard for either Ruthie or me to get much sleep that night, knowing that we’d have to wake up at about 0200, make coffee and button up Rutea for the day.  We were right on time as we were about to step aboard the big cat when Luc met us on the dock.  Our transit had been postponed by a day.  “Go back to bed,” said Luc.
Gatun Locks with Giles and Artur

The next morning, at the same time, we cast off the dock lines shortly after 0300 and steamed towards the rendezvous point.  Our advisor was right on time and we were just heading into the first of the three Gatun Locks as the sun was rising.

One of 46 tugs used at the Canal - $15M each
There are any one of several configurations that a yacht can be assigned when transiting the Canal.  If there are several yachts transiting at the same time, a ‘raft’ can be formed and the outside boats have the required 7/8” lines go ashore where workers place the eyes in the ropes around massive bollards.  Another configuration is for the yacht to be against the wall of the Canal and hopefully the robust fenders that the agent provided will keep the yacht from being damaged.  A third option is for the yacht to tie up to a tug or work boat that is tied to the wall.  The big cat we were on was assigned to tie up to a 60-foot work boat.  The work boat was kind of a grungy thing and since it didn’t have an enclosed toilet, the owner had opted to rent a ‘porta-pottie’ and place it on the aft deck as Canal regulations require all vessels to have an enclosed head.  Besides showing lots of wear and tear, the work boat belched thick clouds of black exhaust from its engines, which were never shut down.

Bridge of the Americas
Our transit went smoothly enough and was even boring at times.  We made it through the final lock and into the Pacific while it was still light and anchored between Isla Culebra and Isla Flamenco.  Luc and Elaine offered to take Ruthie and me out for dinner but the children were already falling asleep, so we requested they just take us ashore.  They insisted, though, woke the children and all of us piled into their small dinghy for a wet ride into the dinghy dock.  We had dinner, found a nice hotel, said ‘au revoir’ to Luc, Elaine and family, got a decent night’s sleep and took a bus back to Colón.

The next couple of weeks where whirlwinds of activity aboard Rutea as we prepared her to sit patiently in her slip while Ruthie and I returned to San Diego.  We were able to find a cruiser who was willing to look in on Rutea and that gave us a little piece of mind that if something were to happen, at least we’d know about it before we returned to be surprised.  We left Shelter Bay Marina and Rutea in the early morning and shared a cab with a cruiser who had business in Panama City, about an hour-and-a-half drive away.  We checked into the squeaky clean Hotel Coral Suites and even though we were there well before check-in time, they showed us to our spacious room.

Armed with a copy of Lonely Planet for Panama, its top edge fluttering with bits of paper marking important pages, we set out to discover this city whose skyline resembles that of Miami Beach in Florida.  As per usual, Ruthie and I walk everywhere and, fortunately, Panama City is mostly very flat.  That didn’t stop me, though, from working up enough perspiration to completely soak my clothes, the tropical heat and humidity continuously torturing me.

One of the highlights of our tour was visiting the old part of Panama City, which, like many cities, has undergone revitalization and now hosts trendy shops and tony eateries.  We easily spent three hours in the museum on the building of the Panama Canal, the saga of which almost reads like a fictional murder mystery.  For lunch, we walked back to the fish market, a massive facility for both wholesale and retail seafood sales, complete with many restaurants and stalls.

That evening we got together with a cruising couple we had met at Shelter Bay Marina (who were also leaving their boat and heading home) and after cocktails in our room, we walked to a restaurant with a dinner show featuring traditional Panamanian folk dancing which was far from professional but had much in the way of effort, dignity and pride.  We all felt it was very worthwhile and the food was pretty good, too.

Then, one more time, Ruthie and I boarded a plane for home, knowing that probably it would be the last time we’d leave Rutea in a foreign port and fly home.