We Arrive in Nicaragua

Marina Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua

We finally found a window to leave windy Bahia Santa Elena early the morning of March 25, and scooted out of the bay crossing choppy seas to the Nicaraguan coast off of San Juan del Sur. We found it much calmer to stay within a mile or two of the coast, and once we turned north, the wind and sea were behind us all the way to Marina Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua. We left Bahia Santa Elena at 10:00 a.m. yesterday morning, with light and variable winds, to cut over across the gulf to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, and gradually make our way north. We faced quite a strong head current, slowing our speed to 5.5 knots, and turning our 20-hour trip into a 22-1/2 hour trip, arriving here at a beautiful spot at 8:30 this morning. The highlight of the passage was playing dodge-boat with all the fishermen off the Nicaraguan Banks, and Jan remembering that when you see somebody’s red light, and you have a constant bearing, diminishing range, it’s a good time to turn right, especially if it’s a big tuna boat!

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.

Repaired Engines and Return to Independence

Happy Birthday to Jan and Ole!

The big accomplishment this month was getting the engine put back together after it’s breakdown The new manifold arrived just in time for Ole to get it put back together before he left to go back to sea. Timing being what it is, he was able to fire up the engines and do a full test at 12:00 noon the day before he had to go back to work!

November 17 took Ole back to Independence of the Seas, with me again tagging along.

The unfortunate thing about flying back through Panama City was that our little digital camera was stolen from our backpack somewhere between Bocas del Toro and Panama City, where we had arranged an overnight to take care of some banking and real estate business. Bummer. Had some great party pics gone…

We arrived a day early, and arranged to stay over with Bud and Maggie Husted, who are now living ashore in Ft. Lauderdale. Maggie, hospitable as ever, organized a barbecue party for the ex-Riverview Marina gang, including Kim, Brendan, Chris, Russian Mike and Natalia. Chris has been competing in regional barbecue competitions, so he provided the goodies – brisket, chicken, and the best pork ribs on the planet, as far as we were concerned. It was great to see everybody, catch up on the gossip and eat ourselves into a stupor.

We joined Independence on her first day back from Europe, and found the entire Homeland security process back in the US to be completely overdone, with petty officials in uniform making the first impression anybody has of the ship unsettling. Plus, with over 4000 guests and 1400 crew, the baggage handlers had a mental block about moving bags with any kind of alacrity. I think we were delayed by two hours that first call in.

It was good to see everyone on the ship again, and settle into our “second home.” Cruising the Caribbean on a ship we have done to death, so Ole settled into work, and I settled into reading, knocking back three to four books a week. Our birthdays were spent quietly, and Thanksgiving dinner was spent in Captain Teo’s cabin. Bless him – a Croatian Captain organized a room service American holiday dinner for Norwegians, Poles, Italians, and Russians. The turkey was fabulous, but we missed some of the trimmings!

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.

August Back on the Rio Dulce

August, 2007
Hacienda Tijax

The work on the Norway property continued at full steam during the first week of August. Ole needed to get back to the Sovereign to take a break from his working vacation!

After a very long trip home from Norway (Gjaeroy to Bodo; overnight Bodo; Bodo to Oslo to Newark to Houston to Guatemala City; overnight; bus to Fronteras — total time 3 days), we arrived back at Emma Jo to find her in good shape, and the cats excited to have us home. The only fatality was what our boat sitter Lucy referred to as a “broken water thingy” — turned out to be the main water pump. Fortunately we had a new one onboard, which was lovingly installed by our neighbor Sim, on the s/v Alianna. He’s a great guy and fellow chief engineer — he works as chief on a British tall ship used to train sailors and rehabilitate youth at risk. Cool project.

Oscar, our varnish guy, had nearly finished some very good work on the teak — varnishing the cap rails and rub rail to a faretheewell. We were so proud, and eager to remember boating, that we decided to take the last weekend before Ole’s return to the Sovereign and travel with Spiff aboard Ruthy L, a 46-foot Fisher motor sailor, for a short trip on Lake Izabal.

We visited Denny’s Beach, a small but beautiful Canadian-owned resort, rafting up on our anchor in flat-calm water and dinghying ashore for lunch. What a lovely spot — with a white sand beach, walking trails through the jungle, and deluxe accomodations for the rich Salvadorans and Guatemalans who come down for vacation. After lunch was the obligatory nap, then a weighing of anchor for a trip further west along the north shore of the lake. We dropped anchor, rafted up again (on our anchor), and prepared for the sundown ritual of cocktails on the “back porch.” We had just settled in, admiring the squall line approaching on the mirror-flat water, when it all went horribly wrong.

The wind went from zero to 25 knots in a heartbeat — then the chop followed, causing Emma Jo and Ruthy L to buck the chop in tandem. The bucking lasted about 10 minutes, and then the wind stopped — unfortunately the chop increased — then turned to hit us directly on the side. The tandem bucking turned in to side to side bashing, bending the horns of our through-hull bow cleats, snapping Spiff’s bow line, and aiming the pointy end of his sailboat right at our bridge. It took about 5 minutes to cut each other loose, and for Spiff to circle around and drop his own anchor.

A morning assessment showed that all of Oscar’s good work was in vain — we had six feet of chewed up rubrail, a huge gouge in the bow caprail, and a 2-foot tear in the fiberglass of the Portuguese bridge. Spiff, though 10 tons heavier, fared a bit worse, having the caprail split and lifted clean off the starboard bow of his boat, and the turnbuckles holding up his main shroud bent beyond recognition.

We are still speaking to each other. Lesson Learned: when you see the squall line coming toward you, don’t just sit there…DO SOMETHING!

Maggie (the fat orange cat) had lost some weight, and was beginning to look really bothered by the heat, panting heavily and acting lethargic. There’s a veterinarian who comes downriver once a month for shots and health papers, who was kind enough to stop by the boat for a look at her — and he seemed to think there was something dreadfully wrong, probably thoracic. Unfortunately, there is no veterinary clinic or laboratory on the river — the nearest full service clinic is in Guatemala City. There began the grief. If the cat is ill, then putting her in the carrier in the heat, going by boat to the bus stop, waiting for a 6 hour bus that may or may not have air conditioning, getting in a taxi, finding the clinic, then overnighting in a hotel only to return the same way would only add to her stress.

Eugene (the owner of Tijax) offered to take me to his vet in Puerto Barrios, about an hour away, as he and his wife and child needed to do some shopping there. So I drugged the cat, put ice in baggies in her carrier, and trudged her over the Tarzan bridges to the parking lot.

Maggie started panting in the parking lot, and by the time we were halfway to Morales, the poor cat was panting so hard I thought she was going to have heart failure right there on the spot. But with the AC going full blast, after about 20 minutes on the road she calmed down. About 5 miles outside Puerto Barrios, traffic came to a screeching halt for over an hour – there had been an accident that was in the process of being cleared. The backup went all the way into town – so the one hour trip lended up to be a 3 hour trip by the time we got in to see the “vet”. Although he used to run a zoo, the vet now owns a pet store. No clinic, no lab, no x-rays. Just haul the cat out of the carrier onto his sales counter for a perfunctory exam. No temperature; no fluid in the lungs; tachycardia (irregular heartbeat). He asked me how old she was, I said “13” and he said “she’s getting old. Give her some vitamins.” Period. Nice man, but clearly not curious about what was causing the irregular heartbeat, and no press to offer more help other than to give her vitamins and keep her from losing weight by making sure she has enough to eat (!) Total time: 10 minutes. There were customers in the shop. So veterinary care here is a reflection of the culture, and cats are pretty low on the food chain.

By the time the shopping was finished, the 3 hour trip had taken about 8 and a half hours, and I know no more than when I left. After this experience, I’m really not willing to subject her to any more travel stress, and will have to figure out how to keep her comfortable and happy until the end. It makes me sad that I can’t do more for her.

Along with the cat drama came word of Hurricane Dean, which looked like it was going to make a direct hit on us. There was some minor scurrying around the marina to remove canvas and secure lines, but the Rio Dulce’s reputation as a hurricane hole stood. We got winds of about 5 knots, and 12 hours of rain — making the river rise about a foot here. They don’t call it a hurricane hole for nothing!

And thank goodness for good neighbors. Shortly after Ole left for Sovereign, I noticed alarm lights on the forward bilge pump and shower pump, and investigation found that both had burned themselves out. Our neighbor Ken on s/v Novena, helped me find a replacement shower pump, and our long lost friend Spiff installed it for me. Although it’s supposed to be automatic, it’s not quite perfect — requiring running upstairs naked to turn it on (I forget to turn it on as I’m stepping into the shower), then rushing back upstairs to shut it off.

Without Ole here, Sim and Rosie, and Ken and Patty, English sailors moored near us, have adopted me and take me everywhere — most often to the Sundog Cafe for happy hour a couple of times a week. Some days we visit the “Ropa Americana” vendors who take pallets of Goodwill clothing and overstocks sent down from the states and offer clothing for sale cheap. My most recent finds are a denim sundress (Bobbie Brooks) for $3, and a tennis skort (Jones New York) for $2. I’m beginning to forget how to even spell “Nordstrom.”

Lessons Learned (Part 2 of Many…)

March 19, 2007
Placencia, Belize

So after another wonderful day, we heard on the radio that there was a norther coming on Saturday morning, with expected winds from the northwest at 10-15. As we sat Friday night over the rum and oj, we remarked to ourselves that heck, 10-15 was nothing, we were on the south side of the cay, and we could handle it. We snorkeled the anchorage, and found we were set in sand on top of a hill in about 30 feet of water. The anchor chain lay across the top of the hill and gently circled down to the bottom at 50 feet before tracking back up to the boat. We thought we’d be fine, as we had out 175 feet of chain.

About two miles away, in an area the chart calls Bread and Butter Cays (but the cruising guide calls Stewart Cay), we spotted another trawler, tried to hail them on the radio, but they must have been otherwise occupied.

At 11:00 p.m. on Friday night, Jan was up on the computer and Ole had just gone to bed, when, out of nowhere, the wind started blowing 25 with gusts to 30, out of the northwest. So much for weather forecasting.

Ole shot out of bed, looked at the plotter, and found we had slipped anchor and our adrenaline kicked in.

This area is another of those where the plotter, the chart, and the cruising guide differ as to precise positions, so Ole started up the engines, and wisely watched the radar and the plotter for about an hour. When he saw that the anchor had dug in and we were holding ground, he decided to stay up until the worst was over. Jan cat-napped on the watch berth, periodically rising to confirm we were still okay.

At 6:00 in the morning, the light showed we had indeed traveled what we thought was sickeningly close to the reef, but were still holding. The winds had abated during the night, but picked up again with daylight, producing quite a chop in our anchorage. As we considered our options, we heard a call for “any vessel” from the boat we had spotted the night before. They, too, had slipped anchor, but were not so fortunate, as they had been shoved up onto a sand bar and were hard aground. They confirmed their boat was fine, the people were fine, and requested some help in the form of a tow.

We were not at all sure we could help. Our dinghy was still in the water, the wind was blowing a steady 20 knots, and we were unsure about how to get out of the zigzag entrance to our lagoon.

Once we decided to give it a shot, we raised the dinghy, started the engines, and Jan went forward to heave up the anchor. The switch for the anchor windlass chose that precise moment to become non-functional. Ole ran down to the chain locker to examine the switch, and tried to jump-start it, to no avail. After about 10 minutes, we found that by pressing on the switch with a thumb and wiggling as we pressed, we could get some response, and the chain crept up in fits and starts, allowing Ole to position the boat on the track line we left coming in, and get us safely out of Spruce Cay lagoon.

Once underway, we headed toward the vessel in distress, and formulated a plan.

We took out our 300-foot, 1-inch hurricane line, looped it through our two aft hawse cleats, and made a makeshift bridle with a trusty bowline, allowing the distressed vessel to send a party over by dinghy to pick it up. He returned it to his boat, tied off to his two aft deck cleats, and we started pulling, thinking we could “back” him out of the sand bar. Even though we revved up to a mighty 2000 rpm, we made no progress other than to rip out one of his cleats and a chunk of railing.

That having failed, he opted to shift the tow line forward, and asked us to maintain just a constant low-rpm pull, with us headed into the wind, hoping at best that the wave action would work his boat loose – at least that we could keep him from being washed further toward the mangrove until another boat en route could help with the tow.

We found that each time we fell off the wind and had to reposition the boat , we were creeping into shallower and shallower water, until, when the depth sounder crept below 4 feet and quit returning a signal, we decided to add another 200 feet of line. Just as we requested adding a third line, the other vessel showed up to help.

About 11:45, other boat added its heft to the effort. Since the distressed vessel was losing cleats left and right, they were advised to wrap one of the tow lines around their house and send it to the other assisting vessel. Once all lines were in place, we and the assisting vessel coordinated a mighty pull, which snapped the tow line attached around the house. We decided that there was nothing more we could do, and to head for Placencia.

Once our decision was made, we agreed to lend the vessel our lines, and decided to let him haul them in from his end. Trying to untie the bowline in our towing bridle proved impossible – given the strain of pulling a 10-ton boat with a 24-ton boat with saltwater-drenched line. Out came the trusty knife.

Once the line was cut, Emma Jo drifted backward, and in spite of furious pulling on the line by the distressed vessel, we ended up with tow line wrapped around both our propellers – in 20 knot wind, in 7 feet of water, in 2 foot chop. Jan rushed up to drop the anchor, which did not set. Using the less-than-effective thumb-wiggling anchor retrieval technique, once the anchor came up we saw it had a huge rock wedged into it.

Since we had no other choice, we dropped the anchor yet again, and fortunately, the anchor hitting the bottom knocked the rock loose, and it held. The distressed vessel helped cut the line off our shafts, Jan thumb-wiggled the anchor windlass switch and we were off. The assisting vessel remained nearby in case they could be of service.

Once we got safely anchored in Placencia, we had a nap and a meal, and turned in early.

Sunday lunchtime we decided to meet some of the people who had been hovering on-site or coordinating radio communication from Placencia during Saturday’s efforts. We took the dinghy over and met some wonderful people for lunch – and debriefed the situation. When Ole heard that there was to be a commercial tugboat dispatched to help the distressed vessel, there was no question but that he would ride along with them.

There was quite the vicarious sense of adventure listening in on the radio, which for some reason, was louder and clearer than it had been the previous couple of days. When it was announced just after high tide that the vessel was floating, had intact running gear, and could motor on her own, in spite of snapping a 2-inch tow line in the process of getting free, you could almost hear the cheers from 20 miles away.

So this adventure raises a few moral questions:

Should we put our own vessel at risk to help another? When is it time to abandon an assistance effort? When, in a third-world country whose Coast Guard doesn’t have any ships, is it appropriate to alert the authorities? How much detail about another’s predicament should one provide on a public website?

In the first case, each boater must assess his own abilities, equipment, and resources. There is, of course, a long tradition of Samaritanship at sea – and an international treaty which requires commercial ships to render assistance when possible – Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS. While we seriously contemplated denying the request because of the conditions in which we found ourselves, each decision and consequence allowed us to rethink the situation and choose anew. Several times during the 5 hours we stood by the distressed vessel, we thought to end the effort, but found that we could do more, take more than our fears would have us. After all – it could just as easily have happened to us – and very nearly did. The key seemed to be to stay present, stay rational, and adjust as necessary, avoiding the temptation to let panic or adrenaline decide. Another factor is, of course, Ole’s profession and training, allowing him to take the emotional lead on our boat.

We felt thoroughly terrible saying goodbye and turning our back on the distressed vessel. But we had tried for nearly 5 hours, through high and approaching low tide. The addition of a second vessel with a similar power plant to ours seemed to make no difference to the result. We had been up all night, and maneuvering in bad conditions for 6 hours from the time we left our anchorage to the time we left the site — and fatigue was setting in. It sounds harsh to me – but taking care of oneself needs to be the prime directive when taking on helping another.

The third consideration is interesting. As decent, law-abiding cruisers, we should make every effort to deal honestly with the governments of the waters we cruise. We do not want to be ugly Americans (or otherwise) while guests in foreign waters. But in a part of the world where a vessel blown aground onto a reef was recently faced with a fine of $30,000 and a jail term of 3 years, one has to determine individually whether honesty is in the best interest of captain, crew and vessel.

And finally, because of the previous moral consideration as well as the last, as the webmaster and diarist of this website, it falls to me to make the decision about how much detail to make publicly available. I have attempted to include as much detail as is pertinent to us, the crew of Emma Jo, while eliminating any detail that would positively identify the vessel in distress or other parties who might have assisted in her rescue.

Moral questions aside, it has been an interesting few days, and has not only added to our cruising repertoire but also to our sense of community within the cruising world.

Lessons Learned (Part 1 of Many…)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007
At anchor, Bahia del Espiritu Santo
Quintana Roo, Mexico

It’s clear that every day contains lessons learned.

On Sunday evening, at 9:00, we weighed anchor from San Miguel in Cozumel, headed just about due south for Bahia del Espiritu Santo some 86 nautical miles down the coast. The first three hours we were in the lee of Cozumel, had light winds, and gentle swell from the south southeast, and we said to ourselves, hey – this won’t be too bad. Had some tunes on the I-pod, homemade oatmeal cookies, a pot of French Roast sitting in the thermos in the sink, and everything secured for sea. The swells, though 4 to 6 feet, were long and slow enough for us to actually enjoy them.

Then we discovered that the boat can take way more than either the autopilot or the crew.

About half an hour south of the tip of Cozumel, we were in the deep blue of the ocean, and the winds steadily increased to between 18 and 25 miles per hour, and the size of the swell began to overwhelm the autopilot. By about 2:45 a.m., with Jan on watch and Ole trying to catch some rest down below, the autopilot screamed that it had had enough, what with trying to maintain 6.5 knots while fighting off a steady east wind, a strong north setting current, swells increasing to 8-10 feet, and an annoying wind chop on top.

When the autopilot started screaming, Jan had had enough, and luckily Ole decided that a screaming autopilot and nervous wife warranted some adjustment. We dropped speed to about 5.5 knots, and Ole began what ended up to be about 6 hours of hand steering in increasingly turbulent conditions. The hard part was that we couldn’t see the big ones approaching, and once in awhile caught some big swells on the port bow that caused some great sliding and rolling. As we watched the miles and the clock gradually ticking down, we took comfort in the fact that we would be entering the reef at Bahia del Espiritu Santo some time around 9:00 in the morning.

So there we were…and this is no poop…looking at the lighthouse on the south end of the entrance to Bahia del Espiritu Santo, the British Admiralty chart of the area (latest datum 1999), the Raymarine chart plotter (new), and Captain Freya Raucher’s Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico’s Caribbean Coast (1986) … and all three of them said something different about where the entrance to the reef was!

Captain Trevor had told us about “eyeball navigation” which was great in theory. In the heavy chop it was difficult eyeball exactly where the reef began and ended, and where the safe passage lay.

Confronted with three disparate views about where we were supposed to enter the reef without becoming kindling, we had to cruise back and forth for about an hour, perform some calculations on the paper chart, express our separate viewpoints, read the Cruising Guide over and over, and make a decision. A cruiser we had met at el Milagro in Isla Mujeres who had just returned from this area told us that the positions listed in the Cruising Guide were “right on,” so we decided to trust them, even though the chart plotter and the paper chart showed us that her waypoint was smack on the reef.

So, clenching our sphincters firmly, we steered toward a point that the chart plotter and the chart told us were on the reef, but in actuality was the safe opening that Captain Raucher had documented, and Jeff from el Milagro had told us.

Lesson learned: Charts and plotters are called AIDS to navigation.—they are not God’s law. Local knowledge is called local knowledge for a reason. Trust local knowledge — recent local knowledge.

About a mile inside the reef, we sat for a few minutes and realized we had not made a decision about where we were going to anchor. So we cruised south toward the lighthouse (as the sun moved steadily south, creating glare on the water and making the dark shapes hard to read – were they grass? Coral? Shadow from the clouds?). When the depth sounder registered 4.2 feet in an area charted as 10 feet, we turned around and cruised back toward the north side of the bay, hoping for deeper and calmer water.

Finally, about 11:00 a.m., realizing we were not going to find a flat, calm place to anchor in 20-knot winds, we picked a spot between the reef and a beach, in about 9 feet of water – put out 75 feet of chain, cracked open a cold Miller, and went to bed. 14 hours of overnight cruising in less than ideal conditions, plus the need to make a gut decision in unfamiliar waters made for more stress than any of our previous cruises have produced.

Lessons learned:

  1. Any anchorage that lies in enough water with enough chain and doesn’t lie in 8-10 foot swells is a great anchorage when you’re exhausted.
  2. The first cold beer after a night passage like that one is the best beer you’ve ever tasted.
  3. It is good to nap.

After the nap, we treated ourselves to a swim and some naked pina coladas on the aft deck as the sun went down, a simple dinner, and an unheard-of bedtime of 9:00 pm.

Now for a report on the 4-legged crew:

Barclay is amazing. She insisted on staying in the pilothouse with us without complaint throughout the crossing, and when I wouldn’t let her out the salon door for the “outside” water dish, she decided to sneak out the pilothouse doors and drink from it anyway instead of from the “inside” dish in the galley. As she stuck her head out the door, the wind flattened her ears against her head, she hunkered down, and shouldered her way down the side deck before we even registered that she had done it, and was back a few minutes later, taking up her usual cruising position at the base of the fly bridge steps

Maggie has earned many points on this crossing toward her Junior Sea Scout badge. There was only one barfing incident, she thoughtfully aimed it at her own scratching pad, then stayed the night under the aft wicker chair in the salon instead of down below as usual. As soon as the engines were cut, she demanded breakfast, then sacked out on the back deck for a nap, even though the boat was moving at this anchorage more than during any of our past cruises.

Lesson Learned: The cats are fine, and can stubbornly take care of their own needs pretty damn well.

Now comes the interesting part. Tomorrow evening we have to intentionally head out of here and do this again for another 66 miles in order enter Xcalac, our official “exit port” from Mexico, so that we can officially enter Belize in San Pedro on Thursday morning and get tied up in Belize City by Friday.

Lesson Learned:

  1. Do not, if you can help it, commit to a schedule if you are going to do this.
  2. If you must go out in seas beyond your present comfort zone because you have been stupid enough to commit to a schedule, stock up on brown shorts.