Fun With Wind and Weather

Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Two weeks later, and we’re still in Costa Rica. We’re in just about the northernmost protected anchorage, just an hour and a half run to Nicaraguan waters, nailed down by the winds.

From Islas Tortugas two weeks ago, we did a short run to Bahia Ballena for a couple of nights. There isn’t much there, just a small village with a wicked (for us) surf landing, and a community pier where the fishing boats tie up. The tide range is a pretty wide 9 feet (from our Florida and Caribbean experience of inches), and tying up the dinghy required setting a stern anchor to prevent being sucked under the concrete pier during the incoming tide. The pier was worn, slimy with marine growth and pelican poo, but the fishermen were friendly. We managed to score a kilo of fresh shrimp right off a shrimper who sold to the fishermen at the pier, and enjoyed peel ‘n eats and a beautiful salad.

The water wasn’t the clearest, but we installed a new zinc under the swimstep, and had a few cooling dips when the heat overtook us. A highlight of our stay in Bahia Ballena was the chance to watch Holland America’s Maasdam pass by on March 12 on its way to Huatulco, and contact them on the radio to relay a greeting to the DeFever Cruisers Association group onboard. We don’t know if they saw us or not, but it allowed us an excuse to raise a glass in their honor.

On March 13, we hoisted anchor about 11:00 pm for the 116-mile, 16-hour run to Bahia Culebra. We had a beautiful run with next to no wind and long slow swells of 3-5 feet. When we arrived on the 14th, there was quite a stiff breeze blowing out from the east, so we tucked into a little bay on the northwest side, and protected by a little point, enjoyed a quiet two days punctuated by a couple of troops of howler monkeys calling back and forth. What struck us the most about this bay was how dry the landscape is. After two years in the wettest part of Panama, it was odd to see California-like hills of golden color, dry trees, with very little in the way of green except right along the shore.

On March 17, we moved over to the head of the bay to anchor off the new Marina Papagayo, to run in and check email. The marina is beautiful – state of the art slips, electricity, uniformed staff, shops, bar and restaurant, and stunning internet facilities inside an air conditioned lobby. We had planned to stay for lunch, but after just 90 minutes the wind kicked up, raising whitecaps between us and Emma Jo, so we opted to run back and spare the computer more spray than it could take. We sat there overnight, watching wind gusting to 25 knots, and thought about moving the next morning to where we could get some lee. The annoying thing about the wind, after about 12 hours of it, was realizing how dry it was – coming right out of the east, off the parched hills. Reminded us of the Santa Anas in Southern California – and the Foehn in Germany (during which murderers receive lighter sentences on account of being driven mad by the winds – just sayin’). On the 18th, after Ole ran ashore to check emails at the marina, we opted to move to the south side of the bay and look for some lee.

Our first choice was crowded with a resort and wave runners, so we rounded a point and ended up in a wide bay called Playa Panama, mistakenly choosing the southwest corner for an anchorage. We ran ashore in the dinghy to one of the cutest little beach bars we’ve found so far – the Playa Panama Beach Club, to check emails and make a few Skype calls. When we returned to Emma Jo, there came the wind again, and in the evening we opted to move back to the southeast corner, where we got some lee. When the wind blows 20-25, it makes jumping off the stern a bit chancy for a swim. We’d hate to end up in Hawaii.

On the 19th, we left Bahia Culebra to pursue checkout formalities with the Port Captain in Playa del Coco. I had to dinghy Ole ashore with the boat papers, and as I dropped him off into a 3-4 foot surf, the wind kicked up, and I had to battle 20-25 knots alone in the dinghy, find the boat, get aboard, and tie up by myself. I did fine, but being alone for 4 hours while Emma Jo was buffeted around in a crowded anchorage was not my idea of a great time. I set the anchor alarm and watched the anemometer – couldn’t bear to be in the salon listening to the wind howl through the screens. Ole had to go from the Port Captain to the Bank and Immigration, then take a taxi to Liberia (about 30 minutes away) to Customs at the airport. Once we got him back aboard, dried out, and fed, we picked up the anchor and moved back to Playa Panama to wait for calmer conditions to turn north.

On the 20th, we picked up anchor early, hoping to get a head start on the wind, which seems to pick up any time between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. Heading north, we needed to round the last cape in Costa Rica – Cabo Santa Elena, to find a protected bay on its north side. We had a fine enough ride until we reached the extreme west end of the cape, turned north, then east, took a look at the army of whitecaps marching toward us, then changed our mind, anchoring off a little place called Key Point, behind the Islas Murcielagos (Bat Islands) back on the south side of the cape. The water was clean and clear, and the wind continued to blow 20-25, so we sat. At dinner, we decided that if Ole woke up at 4:00 a.m. and it was calm, we’d just get up and round the cape before the wind woke up, which we did. We arrived in Bahia Santa Elena, a beautiful, almost landlocked bay, to find one sailboat leaving, two at anchor, and two local fishing boats enjoying the glassy surface of the bay. A spotted dolphin played with us as we came in, crossing our bow wake and rolling over to look at us. We figured on a night or two here to rest up before our 130 mile run northwest to Puesta del Sol in Nicaragua.

We ran over to introduce ourselves to the sailboaters – a nice couple, Danny and Paula on Paula Jean and a great family, Troy, Brady, and their three daughters on Seaparents. We all got together and took an exploratory trip up the estuaries at the head of the bay, finding big green parrots, hearing oropendola, and the most amazing black-red crabs with neon yellow claws clicking over the exposed mangrove roots. Pretty trip!

Last night Ole and I went on a “date.” We had martinis as the sun went down, accompanied with the very last of Dale and Linda’s home-canned salmon. After a brief radio confab about the weather, we changed clothes – Ole in clean shorts and a parrot shirt, me with mascara AND lipstick and a Mexican sundress, had a nice dinner with wine, then put on Neil Diamond and went dancing on the back deck while the wind howled around us. Hey – you have to gather rosebuds while you can! And if there’s no beach club in sight, we make our own.

And now it’s the 24th of March. For two straight days, the wind has just been howling through here, making dinghy excursions kind of wet and uncomfortable. Ole set the wind alarm for 30 knots yesterday, and the beeping was so constant, he just turned the darned thing to 40. The one thing good that has come of this experience is that we now trust our ground tackle and can sleep through 20 knots of wind while we’re on the hook.

Leaving the Costa Rica Yacht Club

The first week of March, Ole flew up to Orlando for a management meeting, leaving me alone at the dock beside the haulout yard at the Costa Rica Yacht Club in Puntarenas. I sat under the watchful eye of the guard tower, taking the shuttle ashore every day or so to check email and sip a quiet coke. Although Linda and Dale left the boat in good shape, there were things that needed doing to prepare Emma Jo for the next long haul, putting things away, slapping on a coat or two of varnish, and visiting the SuperMega down the road for provisions. We paid up, and cruised out of the Costa Rica Yacht Club at a decent 9:45 a.m., headed for the Tortuga islands. Definitely needed an escort out from behind the peninsula, as there were uncharted wrecks and a shifting mud and shoal bottom. Not the prettiest cruise we’ve done yet…nor the most scenic berthing. We were plagued with a daily shower of ash from the burning cane fields nearby.

Work a Little…Play a Little at Islas Tortugas

Islas Tortugas, Costa Rica

Grabbed a mooring buoy off the park, and enjoyed a lovely overnight. Other than the fact that the generator started acting weird just around dinner time, it couldn’t have been better. This Westerbeast is a pain in the butt. It started surging, and when we added load to it, it just gave up and died. We were able to cobble together a dinner, and suppressed many curses to try to keep lighthearted about it. As luck would have it, when darkness fell, we were surrounded by thousands of fish, just hovering in the ring of light cast by the anchor light. We could see phosphorescence in the outflow from the generator, and as the fish moved, when their fins broke the surface, it looked like hundreds of smoke rings blooming on the water around us. We also took a turn on the foredeck, lying against the Portuguese bridge and looking at the milky way and trying to identify constellations and spot satellites. After a time, we just experienced being grateful for the wonderful life Emma Jo has helped us to live.

Invasion of the Tourists

This morning, while Ole struggled with the generator, the troops landed in the form of two huge catamarans who nosed up to the beach and disgorged dozens of tourists. Judging by the pallor of most, we figured them for cruise ship passengers. Unfortunately the mooring buoy we had chosen yesterday belonged to one of the catamarans, so we were booted off and chose to anchor a little further out, which was just as well. Lowering the dinghy, we explored snorkeling spots, but found the current just a bit too strong to deal with. Lots of fish…parrot fish, angels, seargeant majors, and baby somethings grey with one bright yellow spot. We opted to move away from the current toward the beach, where Ole spotted a ray with a 3-foot wingspan; I spotted the march of the hermit crabs on the beach. It was so odd, strolling along the gravel beach, feeling as if I were being watched…then noticing the beach moving, as hundreds of tiny hermits stumbled their way toward the waterline. Back aboard Emma Jo, deck showers done and clothing rinsed off, we noticed a turtle about 50 feet off our stern craning his neck for a look at us. How wonderful to see – a Jacques Cousteau moment. Today was how cruising is supposed to be…work a little, play a little, enjoy the sunset.

A Contemplative Moment at Isla Torguga

Watch Your Belongings on a Costa Rican Bus!

Early February found us getting excited to get back to the boat, and Dale and Linda still having the time of their lives cruising the southwest coast of Panama, toward their ultimate rendezvous point with us here in Puntarenas.

We had more company on the ship, with old friends of Ole’s from over 20 years ago joining the cruise on February 6 – Roar and Trish Molvik. We were able to entertain them at Chops, the specialty steakhouse where you can’t get away from the table in less than 2-1/2 hours, and enjoyed the do-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar on one of the sea days.

The exciting part of the February 6 cruise was a group of bikers who brought 36 motorcycles aboard, ranging from Honda Gold Wings to Harleys of every shape and vintage, and a few custom bikes that defy description. I spent the last hour before departure in St. Maarten watching them all come back aboard after their island tour with the local Harley club, and as the last bike came aboard, a HUUUUGGGGEEEE Boss Hoss (manufactured in Tennessee, I gather), I stuck out my hand, introduced myself as the Chief Engineer’s wife, and he said, “Great! I’d love an engine room tour!” To which I responded, “Great! I’d love a ride on your bike!” Deal, he said, and we made arrangements for both.

On Wednesday, early in the morning of February 10, I got one of the best bike rides of my life, even though it only lasted about half an hour. The bike, equipped with a 400 hp Corvette engine, was painted in blue flame, and the chrome on it shone like a musical instrument. We only drove it as far as the gas station on the east end of Charlotte Amalie, but on the back of that bike I could feel the surges of unrestrained horsepower when he held back and then throttled up. What a machine! And, like most bikers, what a wonderful guy!

As we prepared to fly home on February 20, we found ourselves with a total of three suitcases, two briefcases, a chart tube, a back-pack, and a tote bag in addition to my purse. All told, we figured we brought a couple boat-units worth of stuff along, everything from varnish to gaskets to spark plugs and oil filters. Each bag weighed in at 52 lbs., and the tote bag and backpack probably weighed in at 25 lbs. each. We managed to check the three suitcases and carry the backpack, chart tube, briefcases and tote bag successfully aboard the airplane and then to the Hotel Santo Tomas in San Jose for our forced overnight. We aimed at taking the bus into Puntarenas on Sunday, the 21st.

We were at the bus station by 8:50, missed the 9:00 bus, and with all of our stuff, waited in a crowded terminal until the next bus, which arrived about 9:30. We wrestled all of the stuff to the luggage bay, checking the three suitcases and backpack, then carried aboard our briefcases, chart tube, tote bag and my purse. (Are you starting to get the picture?) We sat in the third row opposite the driver, and Ole put his briefcase and my heavy pink and purple tote bag in the overhead directly over of our seats. I carried my purse and briefcase with computer at my feet. During the ride, we joked about the very large and prominent sign just three seats ahead of us that said, in English, Spanish, and German, “KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR PERSONAL BELONGINGS.” Get the picture yet?

The ride down to sea level from San Jose was just over two hours, along good paved highway, not nearly as third-world and ziggedy-zaggedy as we had expected. There were perhaps four stops before we got off at the Costa Rica Yacht Club on the outskirts of Puntarenas. Ole grabbed his briefcase, leapt down to organize getting the suitcases out of the luggage bay, leaving me to wrestle my purse, my briefcase, the pink and purple bag and the chart tube. But when I stood up to grab the pink and purple bag, it was gone. Vanished. Disappeared.

I couldn’t believe it. In the overhead was the big Ziploc bag with my toothbrush in it (had been in the pink and purple bag). I walked up and down the aisle at least three times, glancing down at people’s feet, but nothing. Looked at people’s faces. Nothing. Asked for help. Nothing.

In that bag were, in no particular order:

  • the digital camera, with all of our pictures from November, December, January, and February
  • the 160 gigabyte hard drive, with all of our pictures from 2004 to the present
  • the iTunes library containing all of our music, all of our personal files for banking, correspondence, and archives going back to 1998
  • the iPod itself, with the only living copy of all of our music
  • a brand-new, never been used SPOT gps messenger we could use to check in with family and friends whenever we change positions
  • a new gasket for the replacement exhaust elbow
  • the two most recent issues of PassageMaker
  • four brand new cruising guides for the Costa Rican Coast all the way up to the Sea of Cortez (NOT cheap)
  • a new Harry Potter movie
  • my personal journal
  • the phone charger for my cell phone
  • and basically irreplaceable stuff.

I could barely say hello to Dale and Linda, I was so shocked. I put my stuff onboard Emma Jo, then caught a cab to the police station, where I waited in the sun for 45 minutes before being invited in and being assigned to the secretary to take my statement (denuncia). That took nearly an hour, including interruptions on the telephone, accidentally erasing the computer-based interview form a couple of times, and refusing to find me anyone who spoke English. I definitely got the feeling they were just going through the motions.

It’s clear to me we’ll never get the stuff back. It’s also very clear to me that the thief was an opportunist – we were the only people on that bus with as much stuff as we had, and the only obvious non-Costa Ricans. But damn, whoever it was was good – to move that heavy bag from directly over our heads without our being aware of it was masterful. I’m hoping they’ll see the camera, the iPod, and the Harry Potter movie, and toss the rest – it’s of no use to anybody but us. I’m praying that they erase the hard drive before they decide to use it or sell it. I’m angry at myself, angry at us, for joking about the sign right in front of our faces. In the past three years, bussing from Fronteras on the Rio Dulce into Guatemala City countless times, bussing from Bocas del Toro to David just as many times, never have we seen such a sign. It’s obviously a big enough problem here in Costa Rica that a sign is needed. Dumbass Gringos.

Hence the limited number of pictures.

In spite of the loss, we’ve tried to remain upbeat during the remaining days with Dale and Linda. We had a dinner out, an interesting $100 cab ride to sort out the paperwork transferring control of the boat from the Bixlers back to us, an afternoon at the pool, and a couple of very long cocktail hours on the fly bridge. They took great care of the boat, great care of the cats, and had the time of their lives cruising some pretty spectacular and unspoilt cruising grounds. We put them on a van to the airport on the 25th, and were a bit unsure what to do with ourselves finally being alone back on the boat. And Barclay – we’ll have to watch her for signs of depression, she got so close to Dale during these past few months.

On Saturday, I put Ole on a bus (oh no, not again) for San Jose, so he can fly up to Orlando for a management meeting. Crappy timing, as it will cut our cruising down from ten weeks to about seven, but we’re hoping to make it up to Huatulco before he has to sign on to Independence on May 5. I’ll spend the week he’s gone re-marking my territory, taking inventory of stores for a two-month cruise, and seeing what I can do to replace some of the things we lost.

Thoughts on Good Friday in San Jose

Good Friday. You could run naked through the streets of downtown San Jose Costa Rica and nobody would see you.

Oops…It’s Easter Week in Costa Rica!

Only today did I realize that this was Easter week – a heck of a time to be traveling anywhere in Central America. I left Panama on a Tuesday, thinking I could return Thursday and that would be three days. When I came to my senses, I realized that “72 hours” meant I needed to stay until Friday. That’s when it got more interesting. All of Central America shuts completely down on Good Friday. No buses. No planes. No taxis. No restaurants or movie theaters or nothin’! So I negotiated with the hotel to put me up for another 2 nights (during EASTER WEEK!) and they were wonderful about it. I chose to spend today, Thursday, visiting the Santo Thomas mall in downtown San Jose (MALL!), getting a haircut and some necessary computer components. Most of the downtown museums appeared to be closed in preparation for closing tomorrow. On the upside, the food at the restaurant at the hotel is superb – reasonably priced, beautifully presented and briskly served.

Doing the Visa Renewal Dance

Given that Panama grants 90-day visas to visitors, I had to leave the country for three days this week, to re-enter Panama for another 90 days. Today was an exercise in middle-agedness. Catching the 7:30 a.m. water taxi, I alighted from the 45-minute run at Changuinola only to discover I had left my wallet in Emma Jo’s pilothouse. Having planned to take the 10:00 a.m. international bus to Costa Rica, it became apparent that I would miss that bus. The dispatcher at the water taxi office in Changuinola suggested I call to have my wallet sent on the next boat from Bocas. So I called the marina, explained my dilemma, and was assured that it would be taken care of. At 11:00 in the morning, the shuittle from Bocas arrived, the driver carrying an envelope with my wallet (credit cards and cash intact). Only then did I stop to think how naïve and trusting I was to have a relative stranger go onto my boat, hand my wallet over to an unknown secretary, who packaged it and delivered it to an unknown water taxi driver, in a very third-world area of a Central American country, and then expect to get everything intact. But wow – that speaks well of the people we are choosing to live with for the foreseeable future.

Border Crossing at Sixaola

Next, I had to negotiate getting to, then over, the border into Costa Rica, then find a bus to San Jose. That’s where things got interesting. The border lies on one of only 2 highways between Panama and Costa Rica, and this one, at Sixaola, is the backwater. One gets out of the taxi in a dirty, grimy, dusty, busy corner of Panama, climbs up some steps, crosses over the railroad tracks, then stands in line for as long as it takes for the ONE border control guard to leisurely leaf through the passport, pausing over each entry and exit stamp, then finally stamping you out of the country. Then one must walk over an ancient railroad bridge across a river into Costa Rica, stand in another line for as long as it takes, then discover you need a return ticket to enter Costa Rica. So then one must walk to a pharmacy, ask for a ticket, pay whatever, then return to the line for more of the same leisurely passport perusal, when finally you are “legal” in Costa Rica. All of this was accomplished by about 1:00 pm, when I found myself stumbling around the same dusty, grimy, gritty, backwater, but this time in Costa Rica looking for a bus.

This border town, Sixaola, is a Chiquita Banana town, with massive plantations peopled by workers who live in company shacks, and little else. But luckily there was a 3:00 pm bus to San Jose. Yippee – a two-hour wait for a six-hour bus trip!

On the upside, the bus was large, modern, comfortable, air conditioned. On the downside, it was a local, not a direct, stopping at several little burgs along the way. Most of the passengers seemed to be backpackers on vacation. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of the mountains, as it was after dark when we began the ascent from Limon. But the trip was uneventful – I landed at the bus station in San Jose about eight blocks from my hotel.