Escape From Panama

After spending two years in Panama and Colombia we thought it was time to move on. We had met some wonderful people along the way and the water exploration was phenomenal, but we were ready for a change. We finally decided that we would head north up to Guatemala for the hurricane season. We have been in Hurricane free territory for almost 3 years so we hadn’t paid much attention to the weather. Now we were heading back out and would have to tuck in before August into the Rio Dulce. Our route took us from the San Blas islands up to the Quita Sueno bank 100 miles off Nicaragua to the Bancos Vivarillos of Honduras and then the Bay Islands of Honduras. Following are some of our journal entries from our trip. Enjoy.

May 8th Left Chichime en route to Nicaraguan Banks

Our last day in San Blas was idyllic. We talked to fruit and veggie guy – Geraldo – for the last time. Gave him our remaining balance of Panama phone cards.

A cute little 7 year old girl named Rachelina paddled out in an adult sized ulu, which was pretty impressive even without the strong winds she was paddling in. She was going boat to boat selling little molas that she had made herself. Seven years old!

A few backpacker boats arrived fresh in the San Blas and sipped beers on the deck watching the sunset as we put our sails up and pulled anchor. The sky was gorgeous. We were a little bit sad to be finally leaving. Heading out, we were a little nervous as well. We had a long 3 day beat ahead of us and the winds we started out with were pretty much straight on the nose. We hadn’t topped up the fuel, so we were really counting on sailing almost the entire trip beyond Quita Sueno and Vivarillos, all the way to Guanaja. A foul wind had us sailing back towards Portobelo from were we had just come. An hour into our trip and we were rolling in the jib and motoring at only three knots almost dead into the wind to try and get clear of the reefs. Fortunately, a couple of hours later the wind turned more favorable after we got a little ways off shore.

Did the math. It looks like we have used on average about 150 gallons of diesel a year. That is fuel used for motivation as well as for supplying power when the sun and wind are down. Gasoline usage for the dinghy is quite a bit less than we ever purchased to mow the lawn or snow blow the driveway. Glad to be sailing again.

10:45pm Kim crashed out a little before 10pm and I am sitting here feeling nervous in the dark wet cockpit. The boat is healed over pretty hard and pounding through the waves. The port rail is nearly buried in the surf. It is DARK. Lots of Butterflies. We haven’t done a long trip like this for quite a while. I’ve tried a little bit of reading and now this writing, but it is hard to stay focused as I am feeling really edgy about crossing paths with Panama Canal traffic. Occasionally hanging off of the back of the cockpit to adjust the wind vane does nothing to calm my stomach. Whenever I get up for that task, the little spot of light cast by my headlamp makes me dizzy when its focus is run in random stumbling directions as the boat pitches me about like a bobble-head. With the lights out, you can barely make out the dark horizon. The water rushing along the lee beam is glowing with bio-luminescence like a bright neon tube showing the outline of the hull. Each big wave we bash through sends tumbling sheets of glowing blue creatures thirty feet off of the bow. It does have a magical look, but it is hardly comforting at this early hour. 285 miles to go. Just saw a few flashes of lightning from behind. Can barely see a star in the sky. Hopefully, the storms are going to roll up the coast behind us because I really don’t want to crawl back up on deck and take down more sail. Especially if it is going to start raining.

I am feeling like a dodgy sixth grader leaning back in his chair, only it is the whole house that is leaning. When I get up and kneel on the windward side of the cockpit to have a look-out for traffic, my knees want to slide off of the edge of the seat. I wrap my hands around the winch like I am going to do a pull-up.

11:17pm BAMM!!! It is that noise when a steep wave has smacked into our windward side and is about to drench me. “Everything alright?!” Kim yells from below. I guess my swearing woke her up. “What is going on?!” She yells up. The wind has suddenly ramped up and is blowing like a bellows into the growing fireworks display gathering behind us. “Nothing … .. . everything is fine!” Then: BAMM!!! I’m soaked by another deluge. Since she is up and I am already soaking, I decide to make a trip up on the deck. I didn’t tie the reefed mainsail enough and it is now hemorrhaging out in a big flapping red hernia. We are already screaming along at 6+ knots and the wind is still rapidly climbing. Got third reef tied in. Still hauling ass. Before I could make it back to the cockpit, the bow submarined and I had 4 inches of water flowing around my ass as I clung to the deck. Mmmm. Salt water bath. Love sailing. Got the jib rolled in to just a scrap. Still making 5 to 6 knots, but much more comfy, aside from the wet ass. Thankfully we got that taken care of because we now had two freighters on the horizon. The night watch on “Apogee” was kind enough to reply to my suggestion on channel 16 that we might be on a collision course. He saw us about 6 miles out on his radar. Thanks Marty. It is nice knowing we aren’t completely invisible down here. Glad he replied because otherwise we would have been changing course.

2:40am 268 miles to go. Getting a little tired. Bioluminesense looks like a tumbling cloud of blue fireflies. We left San Blas with a firefly living in our boat. I think I just saw him fly out our hatch and off to a salty death.

Much later: Less than 50 miles to go. Took a nice shower and climbed into our cozy little den in the back. Had a persistently reoccurring dream that we were passing too close to the reef on arrival. Not surprising as we are now hurtling through the darkness towards the Bank of Lost Dreams. Up again at 11pm for another trip up to the mast. The cool salt spray is blasting me, but I don’t really mind anymore. Third reef back in. No longer hurtling along at warp speed, but the nasty smell of my clothes could use a full gale. They are wretched. Back in the cockpit, I am now enjoying a nice view of the Southern Cross and Sagittarius. The stars are bright. A nice little kite and a tea kettle. Oh joy.

Looking forward for traffic, my heart again sinks as we again seem to be headed into another black hole. Sure enough. No longer have I looked up and recognized the dread in my future, than the wind has cranked up and leaned us over again hard pressed. We have passed through enough of these angry little squalls now on this trip that my stomach muscles are finally starting to relax a little due to familiarity. First the lee rail dips in. Then the leeches of the sails start to howl something sinister right along with the rig. I now look forward to watching the little glowing blue creek that will trickle along the lee deck. Matching streams of glowing blue neon trail along in our wake. All alone and staring off into the darkness, the flashing neon and howling rig make me feel like Dave in the movie “2001” when he is screaming through space towards the surface of the obelisk. I would really love to suddenly find myself standing in some Victorian marble room with good food and clean sheets. And a nice shower to rinse off this horrid sea funk. Yes. I need some sleep.

1:17am Still a dark haze shrouding the stars. We passed through the last black hole at midnight. Although the screeching and howling has died off, I imagine it is still blowing pretty hard because our 20,000 pound house is still pounding through eight foot waves at 5 knots with only a scrap of sail up. Our rendezvous with the reef is set for about 9:30am. We have now been sailing these same wicked conditions for about 54 hours. About 85% of the trip double or triple reefed. We sure didn’t have a problem conserving fuel on this leg.

At about 9:30AM we got to the bottom of the reef nice and early. Thought we had it made. A few big breakers passed by as we came up on the banks and then the waves rapidly diminished in height. Unfortunately, not in power density. There also seems to be a wicked current dragging us away from ever getting a moments rest. We only had to make it ten miles to windward to tuck in behind the reef, but with the tight four foot waves smacking the hull relentlessly, we just couldn’t seem to get there. It was horrible. We took down the jib twice thinking that we could just motor straight in, but both times we were brought to our knees cursing. First, a set of waves would bash us to a halt and then the current would actually turn us backwards. F*&k!!!! As we slowly progressed at only a couple of knots max, we could feel powerful streams of current turn the boat from side to side. It was difficult to keep up with the wheel.

We were so wet and tired. Not just wet, salty. Finally, in the last few miles, the bottom came up some more and we started to make some progress. We were now weaving in to the backside of the bank which was a maze of corral ridges coming up from about thirty feet. On the horizon, I spotted a couple of small pangas zooming along on a parallel course, barely visible to the naked eye. Kim struck us with a rash of wicked paranoia. “Maybe we should keep going,” she said. It was contagious. What to do? We thought we were all alone in the no-mans land of Nicaragua and now it turned out that we weren’t all alone. Kim searched franticly for the rubber bullets that we have for the flare gun. They aren’t much of a threat against the Bad Boy toys, but the report they make is enough to make someone think we are armed. Yes, gun lovers, at this sailing destination, we would have again liked to have something a little more threatening.

After a lengthy, cursing debate of nothingness, fear and loathing, we decided to press on. The little fishing boats were staying way off. We could see the mother ship, maybe a sixty footer, anchored a couple of miles off. It looked like they were busy fishing. What kind of energy could they have left to rob us? The rubber bullets were nowhere to be found.

A few miles up through the maze of turquoise, purple and orange waters, we found a fairly sheltered place to anchor behind a large wreck. Dove in to check the anchor and the water was gorgeous. Crystal clear. Reefs and fish all around. A few little reef sharks scooted about here and there. A cute little turtle eyed me up. Big healthy coral. Schools of barracudas. Beautiful water. Still, the paranoia continued into the night. We locked ourselves in and had the big scary knife ready. For what, I don’t know. The waves were a bit sloshy as the reef in front of us didn’t clear the surface, but we were feeling snuggly in our back berth.

5/12/2010 Second day at Quita Sueno Bank. Got up a few times in the night looking around again. Paranoid. Determined that Quita Sueno doesn’t in fact mean Lost Dream, but to Lose Sleep! Ah-hah. Of course, the name given to the bank because it has a heavy current that has managed to suck dozens of boats onto its windward edge in the heavy current that it generates. We are truly alone here, aside from the fishermen we spotted. The 26 miles of reefy bank are dark and empty at night. It is like anchoring in the middle of the ocean. There aren’t even any passing boats to be seen. Smart captains pass well clear of here.

1:30AM Got up late to take a whiz. The waves sounded like slabs of stone collapsing out in front of us on the reef. The reef doesn’t have the white noise rush of a freeway. Along with the thunderous crashing, there is an easily perceptible hollow sound of a vacuum cleaner endlessly running. Bright flashes of bioluminescence flash from the depths. It is other-worldly. Standing on the bow, the waves gliding by below me give a feeling of motion. It’s like I’m hanging ten on a giant surfboard at the edge of the universe. The wind must be gusting to 30 knots right now and it is blowing the sleep crust from my eyes. The Milky Way stretches overhead as bright as I have ever seen it. It’s swinging around us like a cosmic jump-rope in slow motion. To my left, the Big Dipper swings down toward the surface to scoop up the big pool of Black Bullshit up in the Gulf. (DEEP HORIZON SPILL 2010) How can people be such pigs in such a beautiful world? We’re shitting in our own aquarium.

5/13/2010 Tough getting up this morning. Stayed up late reading an article about Peak Oil in National Geographic. Listened to weather and news on the SSB radio. They still haven’t capped the Deep Water Horizon well in the Gulf. Watched the fishermen with the binocs. They seem to be diving for conch. Conch season should be closed, but we are ninety miles off of Nicaragua, so who knows. Seeing them working so hard, diving non-stop all day, it is hard to be too suspicious of them. Went for a snorkel away from the boat along winding rows and columns of coral. It looks nearly untouched. I hate to write of it publicly for fear that it might bring ruin, but the normal herd hoarding the fringes of the Caribbean would never come here. The herd is always on its way to the next big grassy pasture where a pot-luck dinner awaits them.

Schools of giant snappers and saucer-eyed porgies. My favorite. The most fish we have ever seen. Schools of curious barracuda follow us every time we dive. Looking back at the boat is enough to get your head spinning. There is absolutely no land in any direction. We are in the middle of nowhere. Even in forty feet of water, the sandy bottom looks like it is only twenty feet deep. Sunbeams are refracted like thousands of sapphire laser beams flitting about on the bottom. Every time that I dive down to scope out another paranoid porgy, I am surprised to find out that it is much bigger than originally suspected. Saw the little sea turtle again. Looking up at our boat from the bottom, it looks like a kite flying on the end of string. A good sized coney right under the boat tempted me one more time to get the spear gun. The sharks and barracuda had been making me nervous. Maybe in the afternoon.

At about 2pm, one of the skiffs came nearby so we waved them over. They were up here from Cartagena. They asked if we were hungry. After dumping more and more lobster, conch and crab legs on us, we tried to reimburse them with a couple of old rash guards and some Presidente beers. It felt grossly inadequate, but everyone kept smiling. “It is just you out here?” they asked. What could we tell them, but the truth. Apparently, everybody else is busy paying off thirty-year mortgages. Maybe it should be called the Lost Dream Bank.

Got stuffed on lobster. While we were eating, a couple of big dolphins showed up right at the side of the boat nuzzling each other and then just floated there five feet away staring at us. I kicked myself for not just jumping in the water with them. They looked surreal gliding around in the crystal clear sapphire next to the boat. Went for a 5:30pm snorkel. Saw a little reef shark. Watched yellow and blue arrow-tailed ballyhoo flitting about in the sunbeams dancing on the darkening surface. Giant barracuda showed up. Decided it was time to shower off.

5/14/2010 Our 4 Year Anniversary Since we Splashed.

Swam with the dolphins. The same pair that we saw yesterday came straight up to the bow. They twirled and peered at me from down below the boat. Poked in a couple of crevices in the reef and swam along on their way.

Ate some pickled garlic with cream cheese on fresh bread. All home-made by Kim. Even the cheese!

Went on another snorkel excursion. Followed a reef shark up to the bank. The water color changes from icy sapphire to bright tourmaline. Every variation of liquid blue magnificence. It is thick with life.

Listened to more drivel on radio about trying to shut down the BP leak. First globs of crude hit the shore. Controversial use of dispersant. It is like they are trying to keep the problem below the surface, but in doing so, it seems to me, that they are sticking a big shot of poison right into the main vein of the Gulf Stream. Endless talk about who is to blame. How about the consumer already?

Overheard a couple of Louisiana fishermen chatting on the SSB about having seen the blast firsthand. It is already sounding pretty desperate up there. They are screwed. How will the Talking Heads smooth this one over?

May 15th

Fishermen are gone now. On their way to Serrano Bank. We are now truly alone. It appears that we have 26 miles of wreck-littered reef to ourselves. And again, we have that nervous feeling. We are all alone. Not even the fishermen now. Never would have figured on being upset about that.

This mornings NPR news said estimates are like an Exxon Valdez spill every four days. Oh well. We get the Fox News – “Fair and Balanced,” as well on the Armed Forces Network. I’m sure they will paint us all a much rosier picture.

Went for another snorkel up to the shallows. Every day I keep saying to myself, “God! This place is gorgeous!” Every day, there is more to see. To swim through the neon sapphire, turquoise and cobalt water is spectacular. Today, when we first got to the shallows, we were greeted by two giant barracudas who proceeded to follow us. Kim pushed me in front of her like a tasty meal. She said she was hiding behind my manliness. They just wouldn’t go away. One had inky black splotches pulsing along his belly. Were they curious? Territorial? Not sure, but very creepy. I would scare them back, but then they would quickly turn and come in closer. At one point, one bent over and took a nip at the other as they were screaming towards us. When we got into the coral gardens they finally left us.

The shallow coral is outstanding here. Giant snappers in a big school by one head. They scoot around like little dogs. They have the eyes and teeth to match. Around another head we came face to face upon two monster tarpon. That will get your heart going. After doing our best to follow them, we decided to take a breather and drift back through the maze toward the boat. First thing, we drifted right up to a hawk-bill turtle that was hovering at a cleaning station. The current carried us right to his side. We were about three feet away – face to face with him. He continued chewing on something for another minute and then with a look of shock it dropped from his mouth as he decided to take off in a flash. He darted away faster than a hawk, despite being the size of an SUV wheel.

A little further on, we drifted by a section of shallow reef dominated by thick schools of tangs, margates, and a whole rainbow assortment of others. Just as we arrived, the fish were all darting away. The strange thing was that these hundreds of fish were all swimming towards us. It was creepy. What was coming? Then, there they were. Our two barracuda friends. The splotchy one was now entirely colored jet black. His huge jaws snapping open and closed, swimming towards us with his teeth on display. Thankfully, they kept swimming on by this time. Behind them, a thick school of jacks converged on us darting in all directions. Below them, a half dozen stingrays bounced along the bottom in formation like a fleet of vacuum cleaners.

As we approached the boat back in the deep water, we were joined by a half dozen curious ocean trigger fish. They alternately morphed white and then black and every shade of gray in between while googling at us with their curious eyes and flipping the little spike up and down on the top of their head like Uncle Martin. Dreamy.

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