Ole is Press-Ganged into the Columbian Navy

Albuquerque Cay, Columbia

We are sitting at anchor in the most amazing place. The Albuquerque Cays are two tiny (less than 600 ft wide) coconut-fringed islets surrounded by a circular reef about 110 miles off the central Nicaraguan coast, and about 30 miles south of San Andres. We are at anchor between and a little to the west of the two cays, in about 25 feet of the clearest water I’ve ever seen.

The Proud Columbian Navy at Albuquerque Cay

The northern cay has an outpost of the Colombian Navy – 9 sailors – who man a communication station here. We were asked to come ashore and register with them, so as our dinghy pulled up, all nine guys, in uniforms consisting of khaki shorts and dog tags, came out to meet us and escort us to their commandant. They speak no English, but were gracious, charming, and hospitable, posing for a photo for us, then escorting us on a tour of the base. At the end of the tour, one of the young men asked me to go back with him to the camp, where he offered me my pick of small, beautiful shells. Apparently, the guys are stationed here for 30 days at a time, ferried here with a month’s worth of provisions and DVDs. The site of a pleasure boat, and the chance to talk to tourists, breaks up the monotony for them.

The southern cay has a fish camp, where it seems about a dozen guys have a shelter, a generator, and a nightly bonfire. They go out to the reef in their lanchas in the morning, returning about 5:00 in the afternoon to tie off to their buoys and clean conch for two hours before finishing for the day. We’ve been here since the 13th, but haven’t seen a supply boat yet. Unlike Vivorillos, the fishermen haven’t approached us directly, but they wave as they pass in the mornings and afternoons.

Snorkeling here has been fantastic, with both shallow and deep places to explore. Ole’s finally got the right gear, and is beginning to relax and really enjoy the experience, although sighting a small nurse shark wasn’t exactly comforting. We’ve seen the usual reef fishes, but found ourselves in a current of blue tang that felt like some sort of great migration, and the gray angelfish here are the size of dinner plates. Out in deeper water, I got the chance to see a spotted eagle ray and followed him for about 15 minutes in 30-40 feet of water.

One of the highlights of being here is we’ve had company for the first several days. Attitude, with Neil and Kathy, is anchored ahead of us about 300 feet. They invited us over for fish curry the other night (the unfortunate but tasty demise of one of Neil’s snorkeling finds), but a half hour before we were due to join them, we got a radio call from the commandant at the navy base. In my limited way, I understood that he wanted us to come ashore for something, so Ole threw on his clothes, grabbed the boat papers, and when he got ashore was greeted by 4 guys in full uniform with machine guns. The panic subsided when, by clever use of hand gestures Ole was made to understand he was being pressed into service in the Colombian Navy, to ferry the four sailors to the fish camp to check on a new arrival. Unfortunately we have no pictures to document this service.

Once that mission had been accomplished and we arrived at Neil and Kathy’s, we pondered the Colombian Navy (Armada, in espanol) and the lack of water transportation for these 9 sailors — and we ate, drank, talked and laughed until late.

Rain Squall Coming

Riding Out the Squall

Today we’re just sitting at anchor, watching squall after squall pass through and thank Neptune that we snorkeled the anchor and found it buried, with a large coral head between it and the boat. Attitude left yesterday morning for Bocas del Toro, heading for the same marina as we are. They preferred the 15-20 knot winds of yesterday. We’re waiting for tomorrow, when the squalls dissipate and it’s expected to slow down to 10-15 knots, which will have us arriving in Bocas on December 20 as planned. We’ve got about 180 more miles to go, which should make for one last 24-hour passage. Emma Jo has been very very good to us so far this trip!

“Boat Bound” in Providencia

We’ve been here a week, and three days of it were “boat bound,” due to some pretty brisk winds that threatened to drag us (again). Friday evening, after a great day of scootering around the island, we went over to Attitude for happy hour. As soon as we stepped aboard, Neil and Dale (s/v Orangi) pointed and shouted simultaneously “You’re dragging!” which prompted a hasty three-man rescue attempt to try to prevent Emma Jo from blowing into Attitude. Cathy, Dillis and I sat and enjoyed the show, but the wind continued upwards of 20-30 knots through Monday and we didn’t’ feel comfortable leaving the boat to go into town.

Ole did make it to town yesterday morning, though, to pick up the repaired heat exchanger for the port engine. Cost was 200,000 pesos (more or less $100), and the leak was small – the repairman only had to plug about 3 of the little tubes. That was the good news.

The bad news is that yesterday afternoon we had planned to go ashore to stretch our legs, and as Ole stepped from the shower, he noticed the shower pump was not working. A hasty inspection found the bilge full of gray water. No telling how long the pump had been out. Fortunately he had a spare pump and float switch, and by 4:00 we were pretty much back in business.

We dinghied into town to find that all satellite services to Providencia have been down for 9 days, so there is no telephone or internet to be had. So we stopped in at the bakery and had fresh lemon pie and coffee, swapped some books at the exchange in the bakery, and browsed the general store for Christmas cards. It felt good to walk a bit.

Malecon at Isla Santa Catalina

In the early evening after the sun went down, we noticed the locals were out and about, in the tradition of an evening paseo – young men and women, families, grandmas and grandpas just strolling or sitting along the brightly painted little malecon. It’s worth pondering what life could be like when what you do in the evening is just go for a walk with your friends or family and talk to your neighbors, instead of being shut in with the television or the computer. The agent, Bernardo Bush, told us that crime is virtually unheard of here, even though there is a marine base and small police presence (or maybe because of it). We noticed that there is no undercurrent of hostility or danger here, unlike some of the other Caribbean islands we’ve visited, maybe due to the island’s history. The cruising guides we’ve read remark that here in Providencia people are actually glad to welcome you, and everyone we’ve passed on the street has been pleasant and openly friendly.

Chef Oliver at Bambu, Isla Santa Catalina

This afternoon we decided to go ashore for lunch, to a place on Isla Santa Catalina called Bambu. The architecture was pretty remarkable – just a framework of huge bamboo assembled as posts and beams around a paved courtyard, with a little outbuilding that served as bar/kitchen. The proprietor, an energetic 40-ish man asked if he could just “drive” our lunch, by which we figured he meant just decide and cook for us. We happily agreed. Our first course was “crab toes” – the small minor claws of land crabs, which are abundant here, prepared in butter and garlic. Olivier, the chef/proprietor, giggled as he watched us wolfing them down, saying “they are addictive – I could eat a couple of hundred at a time.” He was right. This first course was accompanied by some salmon (!) ceviche, marinated in olive oil, herbs and lime, and homemade bread with a spread we think was crab roe. The main course was a beautiful array of perfectly fried sprats, little fishes looking like art displayed on a plain wooden slab with a large leaf and bougainvillea flower, with amazingly crisp plantains, rice and salad. All happily washed down with a cold Aguila. Olivier and his wife, a former journalist from Bogota, moved here two years ago and seemed insanely happy. I think I would be too.

Strolling Along Isla Catalina

We went to town to check out with Mr. Bush, then took a little walk around Isla Santa Catalina which is connected by a bright floating footbridge from the main town. About 200 people live here, very simply. The island is tidy, well-groomed, and fringed with a malecon, or public walkway, along the water.

Typical Santa Catalina House

We strolled by folks just sitting on their porches talking, and little kids out fishing for sprats with what looked like mom’s tablecloth. The end of the malecon leads upward to the remains of a 17th century fort which we think was used by pirates to repel the more lawful ships in the area.

Little Kids Fishing for Sprats

After a light dinner on deck, we left at 2:00 a.m. for the 73 mile trip to the Albuquerque Cays — about a third of the way to Bocas del Toro.

At Anchor, Providencia, Colombia

Providencia Anchorage

We are tucked in at anchor in a very pretty spot: Santa Isabel Harbor on the island of Providencia, a protectorate of Colombia. Only 18 kilometers around, with a population of about 4,000, it’s pretty much untouched by tourism and one of the friendliest places we’ve been.

 

We left Vivorillos at about 9:30 on Tuesday morning, heading south and east taking a short cut across the Main Cape Channel, between Half Moon Cay and Alagarda Reef before turning a bit more south toward Providencia. What a nice ride! The wind was between 5-10 all day and through the night, letting us experience sea swells instead of wind chop coming slightly off our stern for the last half of the ride. Even the cats were amazed, since our last day in Vivorillos saw a wind shift that had us rolling back and forth pretty violently for about 18 hours and experiencing next to no rest. Getting underway was a relief! Our longest passage to date of 188 miles, we tried to stand 3-hour watches and get as much rest as we could.

Of course, shit happens, though. We turned on the generator, it ran for a few minutes, then stopped because of high cooling water temperature. So when it cooled off a few hours later, we tried it again and again it stopped. The chief went down to take it apart and have a look, and found that the problem was as simple as a hose clamp that had broken and the cooler was sucking air instead of water. Half an hour, and we were back in the electrical business, happy that we wouldn’t have to throw out a freezer full of fresh seafood.

Then at about three in the morning, Ole found a freshwater leak in the vicinity of the port engine. We suspected it was the water heater, since it’s 20 years old and looking pretty rusty on the bottom, and we ordered a replacement before we left Roatan to be waiting for us when we arrive in Panama. But disconnecting the water heater, then checking a few hours later, the water leak was still there. Based on the Chief’s knowledge and intuition, it’s the heat exchanger, a fairly simple part to replace, but not easy to get. And running on a leaking one means getting seawater running through the engine instead of fresh – not a good plan in the long run. We shut down the port engine for an hour so Ole could do his detective work, but made up the time with a good following current.

Arriving in Providencia at 11:30 on Wednesday morning, we found about a half dozen sailboats at anchor, including Attitude, with Neil and Kathy, whom we met just a few weeks ago in Utila. We anchored up in about 10 feet of water, and Ole went ashore to meet with the agent and do the entry formalities with the Port Captain. Since he had to go back later in the day to meet with immigration, I went with him and we took in the town, which is pretty much one main street and one side street at the head of the bay.

Commercial Dock in Providencia

Everything has to come in by boat here (although there is a very small airport), but we were amazed that on the main street a mere four or five blocks long were not less than three fairly large grocery stores and tiendas of various types. There are two banks, two bakeries, an internet café, and a few mom-and-pop restaurants, so it seems a prosperous place. And the people here are tri-lingual, speaking English, Spanish, and Creole with apparently equal fluency. It’s clean, pretty, and lacks the usual staging of tourism and its accompanying hype.

We found a little cantina to sit in and sample the local beer: Aguila (Eagle). Outstanding. While we sat and watched the world go by, the agent (Mr. Bush) joined us for a soda, then Neil and Cathy wandered past. We compared our Vivorillos hauls, and swapped information about what do with conch – so on the spur of the moment, we invited them over Thursday evening to try our first attempt at conch fritters.

Thursday, while I cleaned house and consulted cookbooks for fritter recipes, Ole went back into town because we couldn’t get cell signals, and he needed to call American Diesel to talk over our heat exchanger problem and order a spare. He made the phone call from the agent’s office, and the agent recommended a repair guy “Mr. Bing” who might be able to jury-rig a solution to our damaged exchanger. That’s good news on such a small island. We still have nearly 250 miles to go and it would be better without worrying about a seawater-infused engine!

The conch fritters were pronounced a success (used the recipe in the trusty Joy of Cooking), and were accompanied by homemade garlic and rosemary focaccia. Neil brought over a fruit “palate cleanser” – passion fruit halves with papaya and mint, all local. This cruising stuff is starting to make all kinds of sense. Over fritters we agreed to meet in town on Friday to rent scooters and see what there is to see.

Friday morning, the supermarket in town that rents the scooters was fresh out and suggested we take a taxi (pickup truck with bench seats along the sides of the bed) to Freshwater Bay, where we found a clutch of scooters and golf carts and negotiated a rate of $5 per hour with no paperwork. I like this place. The island itself is volcanic, with a sharp, rugged interior (no roads and cows with two long legs and two short legs) and a coast road. Most of the traffic is scooters and improvised trucks. Most of the businesses seem to be concentrated in the town of Santa Catalina, with a few little hotels, restaurants, and dive shops in Freshwater Bay.

Refugio de la Luna – Carmeni’s Gallery

The highlight of the trip was an impromptu stop at Refugio de la Luna, the studio of an artisan named Carmeni Correa, who is living the kind of life I’d love to someday. She works in papier mache, creating whimsical sea creatures, panels, and sculptures in vibrant, primitive colors from her house on The Bluff. A steep path leads from the road, through a tunnel of flowers, fruit trees, and scurrying indigenous blue lizards. We were met by three dogs, , two cats and Carmeni smiling from the balcony. Her house is a simple two-story concrete block construction, with a corrugated roof and glassless shuttered windows, all decorated with murals and stenciled cutouts painted with fish, birds, and flowers. She works in the open air from a wide, shaded balcony overlooking papayas, bananas, avocado, lime, orange and plumarosa trees and out to the sea. Her house is her gallery – the simple whitewashed walls and white wicker furniture make her art sparkle. She told us she walks every morning, and uses a lot of “found” objects and trash to get started, obtaining her cardboard and paper from the back of a local tienda, using plastic bottles as the framework for some of her creatures – a neighbor called her to report half a mannequin had washed up on the beach and that became a fantastic mermaid rising from the sea. We couldn’t leave without buying something – so there’s a new golden seahorse ready for the Christmas tree!

Carmeni’s Work

More of Carmeni’s Work

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another interesting stop for lunch allowed us to meet a man who is operating a hotel and restaurant that sits on the spot formerly occupied by his parents’ home, their original concrete entry steps sit all by themselves in a place of honor in the garden. The story is that during the late 60’s a lot of hippies from Europe discovered Providencia, and came with backpacks and tents. His mother offered her garden, charging the hippies a few pesos for a clean and safe spot to pitch their tents. She spotted another opportunity when, during cooking, she noticed hungry looks from the garden, and a restaurant was born. Today, the hotel is a collection of bright yellow frame buildings trimmed in red and blue, with a restaurant perched in the open air right at the water’s edge, looking due west. The food was good, the beer was cold, and the proprietor was charming. Who could ask for more.

On our return to town we found out some good news – the leak in the heat exchanger is a small one. Word from the Chief is that up to 10% of the tubes in the exchanger can be plugged without impairing its function. This exchanger has only one bad tube. Karma wins!

Jan, Kathy, and the Lizard

Neil & Kathy

 

Today, Saturday, we’ve been boat-bound, as some weather blew in last night. We’ve clocked winds of 29 knots – Attitude, with a far more accurate wind generator, has clocked over 31. Rain squalls have been blowing throughout the day. Ole’s been inventorying spare parts. I’ve been reading and napping.  Tomorrow’s Sunday and we understand most of the local businesses are closed. If the weather lightens up a bit, we’ll go ashore and take a walk around the little island of Santa Catalina which is connected to town by a colorful footbridge.

Now it’s time for gin and tonics, as the sun has gone down.