All posts by elgatoannie

Annie is married to Eric Witte and together they own El Gato, a luxury semi custom performance cruising Catana 472 catamaran. Life long sailors and sailing teachers, they bring their passion and experience on board this fine vessel and want to share the stoke with you! Customized teaching charters can focus on teaching all levels of sailing, cruising, and windsurfing. Snorkeling, hiking, and other island adventures await as we explore the Caribbean chain of islands. Annie's Career Highlights Olympic Silver Medal - windsurfing 5 world, 18 National sailing titles in Catamarans and windsurfers Navigator America3 - Americas Cup Womens Team Team Building Facilitator - MBA programs for Universities and businesses Sailing Commentator and Adventure Show TV host on ESPN, FOX, PBS Eric's Career Highlights Hobie Cat Design Team ASA and Beach Cat Sailing Instructor Worrell 1000 competitor - long distance Hobie 16 race from Florida to Virginia Top competitor all size multihulls Lifelong Cruiser Coming soon: TradewindAdventuresLLC.com For more info on customized chartering: Email TradewindAdventures@gmail.com 1-619-549-0098.

Les Perles & sailing to Mexico

This blog is a bit like a ships log. I took notes daily and copied and pasted them here.

The day before we head out, John an d I spot a sloth up in the trees. Seems fitting since I have been craning my neck for weeks trying to see one. They are shy.

March 18, 2020

A big sigh of relief as we heard stories tumbling in from friends who had taken off just weeks and days before us.  Our friends on a cat named Sea Bear, Nick and Lauri who we met in the Canary Islands and reunited with in Panama, had sailed to the Galapagos only to be turned away. With 4 on board, they had provisioned for a 900 mile passage, not the extra 2000 miles to the Marquesas.  So sail on they did, catching fish and rationing food wisely.  Upon arrival at the Marquesas they were told to stay on their boat.  One person per week allowed ashore for food and suppies.  No swimming off the boat, no paddleboarding, no nada.  Lock down in paradise. I can jump ahead now and say that they are happily cruising again but it was pretty messed up for several months. Meanwhile NZ is still in lock down. NO VISITORS IN HURRICANE SEASON!?! Where will all the boas go?

Meanwhile we are entering our first days off the continent, happily exploring and making decisions of which islands to visit and for how long.

The water is warm, there are very few boats, and we are hoping no one has the virus so we can continue north towards Mexico then San Diego. It’s not a bad place to quarantine! Meanwhile all are loading up on Vitamin C.

At Isla Contadora there is cell service – it might be our last communication before taking off so everyone is on their phones. The Latest news is the Canal is not closed yet, but travel to and from Panama will stop on 3/22. 

All our neighbors are heading West – a single handed female named Dee on SV Auntie comes over to chat and tell us about the anchorage. Super friendly, she is finishing her circumnavigation in FP.   As the reality that we are not going west sinks in; we try and grapple with it.   

3/19

News flash: the canal is not allowing anyone to arrive that has not already been onboard – line handlers etc.  This will severely limit who can go through.  And Shelter Bay Marina, the staging marina for all going west is not allowing any workers on sight.  Things are shutting down fast.  Maybe being forced to sail north isn’t so bad.  Costa Rica is now closed but Mexico still open. Ay yay yay

Checked out the Code Zero on our way to the submarine that’s on a beach off Isla San Telmo,

and saw a huge lumbering (sleeping?) sperm whale our starboard side. As we pass it, it wakes up and starts to follow us. Possibly curious. Glad we didn’t get too close. Moby Dick is based on a true story! Then pilot whales pass us as we chase down a Nautitech 40 with a German couple onboard. We anchor close to them near a river off of a gorgeous beach on the south side of Isla Del Rey. With an hour before sunset we hop in the dinghy, stop by to chat with S/V SYBO and head to the river.  It’s low tide and we take stunning photos with the light reflecting on the sand. 

3/20

Tried to go up the river in El Raton but the waves at the mouth were looking dicey.  Had to turn around and punch it while a wave broke over us. We don’t have time for accidents.  Let’s go sailing!

The guide book talks about a sweet fishing village where you can purchase fresh fish on the beach or from the boats. As we approach the area we notice a couple of boats rafted up and head to wards them. A small panga comes over and we choose 3 large red snappers.

No sooner had we negotiated the price $30, than they were called back to the other ship. Hands were sprayed with disinfectant and they waved us away.  2 armed men on the beach were watching and had sent our another panga to call off the deal. It was confusing to watch but then it all made sense. They are indigenous peoples and the government was protecting them from us, foreigners who may carry the disease.  I got a little sad, and it looked like the fishermen were sad too. It felt like the world was shutting down. “Oh the times they are a changin…”

Heading out and true to form for this challenge, the wind is 6 knots on the nose.  It could be worse.  At least it’s light and not stormy. This is dry season so no rain unlike wet season when it rains too much and there’s lightening.  We could have waited for a better window and favorable conditions, but a sense of urgency was starting to rest on us. What if Mexico closes?

Saw dolphins on the end of the last island we passed in Les Perles.  That lifts my spirits a bit.  Nothing like a little nature to bring reality into check.  We are healthy, we are free!

Later a Sperm whale came at us to visit, literally right up to us so I revved up the engine to pull away. Then a Marlin frolicked behind us, jumping at least 10 times! Finally the wind wasn’t against us and we sailed 10 knots for several hours.

Cooked a veggie lunch – sweet potatoes and broccoli/cabbage mash with cheddar.  Our first vegetarian meal.  The veggies will run out in about a week, but not the potatoes and onions. 

For dinner lasagna with eggplant and potatoes, some ground beef.  Trying to conserve the meat.

We got cell service from Panama so everyone checked their e mails and called loved ones.

Just learned the Panama Posse coordinator advised anyone who had not left for the Pacific to stay on the mainland.  Cook Islands and Tonga closed. Too much uncertainty and they don’t want foreigners.  Our friends from Zan and Tourtelle are more than half way and will be stuck on one island indefinitely.  No island hopping.  Wonder how the 90 day Visa limit will work?  For them it doesn’t matter as they are British. For us it would be tricky.  We made the right decision but it doesn’t make it easier. Friends John and Simon are realizing they are with us for the long haul. Mexico is stopping non essential travel tomorrow night.  We got an email saying they received our reservation at Chiapas but do not know if that will still be available when we arrive.  I’d call this essential but will they? 

Wind lightened overnight.

Saw dolphins in the phosphorescence! The Red Tide illuminates them and it is surreal! Watching them swim, weaving and dancing around our hulls is a a sight I’ll carry with me forever.

A note comes in from our friend Carin on Serenity. We left her in the San Blas Islands last month. Evidently while she went to town for some medical procedure, they shut down the islands. No one allowed in. Her boat is there and she has to find someone to sneak her in. While she was gone, the guy she left to watch her boat ate most of her food and wine while hosting dinner parties. He split and the local boys helped themselves to her kayaks and the rest of the booze. When I asked her if anyone was helping her out she said she was being treated like she was a leper because she had been in town. Only one person was OK with being in contact with her, a nice French male cruiser. Proving once again the French are fearless on the water.

3/21

Had the 6Am watch and saw the sun rise. Always nice to witness.  Winds light, 1 engine on.

Made bisquits with sausages and scrambles eggs.  Making bread later. With 2 cans of propane we are fine.  Today is the last day SDYC will do take away.  But they also said they will still keep Opening Day which is mid April.  Optimistic! 

Maybe grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch? (See how this works? It’s all about wind and food!)

09:45 Caught our first tuna after breakfast.  We had just switched to a cedar plug, Gary Weisman’s survival kit. Thinking the lure that sinks and swims a lot may have been scaring them off because we’ve seen tuna all morning with no luck until the switch. Dolphins came to play on the bow between bites.

It’s a smallish Tunny, dark meat, so best for ceviche. Should have thrown it back.

The wind picks up so we can sail fast towards Isla Vicaron, and the anchor is down before sunset.  There’s a swell and I worry that in the night, when the wind changes, we might be stern to the beach with waves breaking over us.  (Didn’t happen)

We enjoy a swim in warmer water than LP, and then cocktails while I make sushi to order.  Fresh nutty bread with olive oil dip is the appetizer. 

Dominos to finish the eve and we all crash happily to the sound of waves crashing on the beach.  

Sun 3/22

At sunrise we are turned around into the new wind direction, 80, and the waves are smaller but now and then a set has us going up and down.  The anchor set in 7 meters and now we are in 3.5.

But the wind is approx 15 knots and we can sail! No exploring this island which quite frankly should not be considered one the prettiest on the planet (according to the cruising guide it is).

There are howler monkeys, turtles, and Palm trees however so that kinda cool.

Eric calls for Stella (our spinnaker) and a full main.

He drives even though he’s off watch and is really happy, especially after checking our boards for damage from the logs we hit at full speed 2 days ago.

Wind picks up and goes forward so we douse the Stella and deploy the Gordo (fat reacher).  Smoking along at 8-10 knots.  The current has been against us since we turned the bottom corner of Panama.  John warns us it will be an upwind bash going home along the Baha.  

That’s so far away right now I can’t think about it.  Tonight we will enter Cost Rican waters.  We have our quarantine flag up so if anyone approaches we will start coughing. That is the new plan to keep anyone away.

The ships going to and from Panama are in a shipping lane to our port side.  We stay closer to shore but off far enough to catch wind and sail less miles. 

Around 4PM with barely any wind and port engine on, we landed a 58’ Mahi Mahi!  It was Simon’s turn to reel one in.  This was the longest fish we’ve ever caught on El Gato and Eric did an excellent job of gaffing him. I drove the boat to keep the fish behind us or make it easier to reel in, John helped Eric by tying a line around his tail, and we were all excited because this meant a fish dinner, or probably 4 dinners.  It’s sad to watch the fish change colors as it dies.  It starts out vibrant turquoise and emerald green mix and starts to fade even before it’s on the boat.  By the time we had him cut he was mostly blue flecks over grey.  

For dinner it was rice and beans, pineapple salsa, panko crusted Mahi, and Giradelhi brownies.  

A quiet night of watches.

3/23

We got cell service at 3AM to download emails and check on line.  I posted our fish photos on FB.  Some folks following us are happy to see what we are up to while they sit at home working, home schooling, or watching Netflix.  We can’t imagine what it must be like back home and are grateful to be out here in fresh air.  The real question for us is will Mexico accept us, and when will the boys fly home.  Eric and I would like to continue cruising the coast making wise choices on weather windows without a deadline. 

John would like to be home by April 20th, JPL is shut down but he runs out of sick days by then.  Simon has a kid in high school and would like to be a good parent and share the responsibilities.  We figure if we can land in Chiapas and check in, refuel and reprovision, then we will continue up to Barre de la Navidad which is less industrial.  Time will tell.  Meanwhile the emails from the PPJ were so plentiful that our iridiumGo box was too full and would time out.  I finally had to delete all the mail and may never know what folks wrote.  But the InReach is great.  I updated it to unlimited.  The texts must be less than 160 characters including spaces but it’s better than waiting for IG to download.  IR is instant and it rings so I know when someone has communicated.  Nothing like a good back up system that turns out better than the original.  IG is priceless for weather routing though and it is working flawlessly with PredictWind.  

Its hot and calm and we are just off Costa Rica.  

The latest news from the PPJ is that yachts cannot clear in, but they can stay.  Perhaps that will help with the visa time limitations. Only one person can go to shore, only 2 dinghies at the dock at a time, and they can only go for food or repairs. Still no swimming allowed.

Sounds awful. Feeling sorry for the boats that went. 

Caught a small Mackerel and let it go.

We have been sailing in the afternoon thermal breeze that only ECMWF has forecast correctly.

Speed over ground, SOG is around 6 knots with 10 knots true wind speed.  Current is always against us and probably will be the whole way north.

John checking in with his family. Or is he looking at stock options?

 Weird day for Boobies…. Caught a Boobie who chased our lure. Twice!  Dragged it though the water, it came off when we slowed down and then it went to eat our lure again, got caught, got off. Then at sunset 2 Bobbies landed on our mast, flat top main, squaking.  We tried to shoo them away so they don’t hurt our wind wands.  Took photos. 

Tonight another green flash like last night, and then more dolphins playing off the bows. A light show that is magical!

Wind on the nose, very light.  Slow going.

And then the wind picks up as we get close to a point. We call these Pt Loma puffs.  One reef and the Flacko and we are scooting along nicely dodging ships and land. Winds lay back down and we shake the reef.  

3/24 Tuesday Another gorgeous day with blue skies and flat seas.

Everyone feels rested and relaxed. 

For lunch we have mahi mahi fish tacos and then the boys take a swim.  It’s really calm now. As we get closer to shore in CR we have cell service and I communicate with friends on Baja Fog in Barre de la Navidad.  They inform me that Mex is soon closing up and cruisers, once checked in, will not be allowed to move around.  This has my head spinning. Would Chiapaps be better than Barre to be stuck?  Neither idea is appealing, and while Eric sleeps the boys and I discuss options.  They are all in for sailing all the way home. Now we really need to conserve fuel.  And while it was supposed to be windy here it is in fact light with the swells building from the right where the shore is.  Are these left over or is there something coming? So far the predictions have been mostly wrong.  Nothing about thermal winds which everyday we’ve had later in the day.  Could be leftover or could be something big coming.  Might be a long night because it’s super uncomfortable.  If one were prone to seasickness they would be stuck on the side barfing.  Its even hard to walk. The waves are steep and close together and on the side. Yuk.

Saw another green flash.

Simon has offered to cook tonight and I’ve given him the ingredients for fish curry.  It was the worst night to cook considering the awful sea state and I am grateful to take a break.

Everyone says they are good eating less and thank goodness because we have already run out of most veggies.  Still some onions, potatoes and carrots left, one mango, 4 limes, 2 oranges, 2 apples, 2 lemons, 6 juicy red tomatoes, one voluptuous watermelon, frozen broccoli and spinach.  Hoping we can go in for fuel and provision and depart again quickly on Chiapas.  John will call ahead and question them when we are close.  If we stay 12 miles out we are in international waters and they can’t make us check in or stay.

Our quarantine flag is flying. 

Saw a basking shark today from the bow.  It was only a few feet away! Tons of dolphins and turtles.  Love how much sea life there is down here! 

I’ve been up since 5am but can’t sleep on my off watch.  Too many decisions and weird weather. Gotta keep moving and groovin’!

Crazy night of side waves, wind picked up but not going to head up at night into a shipping channel to raise the main.  It was slamming so much earlier we took it down.  A ship named AAL Genoa has been changing course, us too with the Flacko up and heading down 10 degrees.  Keeping a good eye on them.  Otherwise we should be able to avoid any ships. He seems to be turning towards San Sebastian. CPA less than a mile.  Prefer 2!

3/26 Wednesday

Raised the main at 6AM and hoisted TIGGER!  Eric says it took him longer than usual to get him out of the bow locker because Stella was sitting on his face.  LOL The wind went forward and decreased to 9 knots and we sheeted the spin in for a tighter reach.  Full Main. Then BAM!

Around 8:30 the active spin sheet broke at the knot.  Eric woke up to help me and John retrieve it.

The lazy sheet got caught around the leeward daggerboard. We got the landing pole AKA boat hook and retrieved the end of it but tied it up for now.  Too windy even backing down to get it unstuck from the board. 
Wind back up to 22 kts and sailing with full main and Flacko.

Apple mango pancakes for brekkie.  

Hitting 22 kts TWS at 10AM and surfing small waves from the stb qtr.

There is a wind window in this gulf that will eventually close.  So getting the best of it and loving it for now!  

Wind eventually died and we motor sailed, then motored.

It was still a bit lumpy but relatively calm and no wind so we stopped, Eric jumped in, I looked for sharks and had a line to toss him, and he cleared the board within a minute.  Had to swim under the board which was all the way down.  Happy that was so easy.

3rd green flash night in a row.

Funniest thing tonight:  John looked out for traffic at dinner (pizza) and said there is a boggie off the port bow.  Eric looked – it was the moon setting! So Eric says CPA (closest point of approach) – 2 million miles!

 In actuality Simon was right – it’s 234,000 miles away. We had to Google it to make sure. 

We haven’t seen it at all because it sets so early so it’s just a fingernail.  Had a good giggle.

3/26

Pretty calm day – not much wind so lots of motoring, especially after hearing from Betsy that we can indeed check into Chiapas without risk of being stuck there.  The boys made the decision to fly home while they still can.  They were willing to stay with us for the duration but the truth is we would like to slow down and cruise home.  There is no hurry to get back to a country in quarantine.  And once we refuel and reprovision we should have plenty to keep us going for another month or so.  Plus now we know of places we can stop on the way to get more fuel even if we can’t go to shore.  We have new jerry cans bought in Panama on our last day there. Just in case.  As the safety officer I’m always trying to prepare for worst case scenarios.  That way they don’t happen but if they do, we are not caught unprepared.

The highlight of the day was seeing wildlife.  Saw numerous turtles lounging and never scurrying to get away from the boat.  Even had 2 go between the bows.  One had a Boobbie on his back! 

And the marlin that jumped close to the boat?  That was spectacular! The dolphins continue to frolic off our bows but I still can’t get enough of them at night when they look like topedoes all lit up leaving squiggly trails.  The movie Life of Pi shows a whale scene where the whale is all lit up at night and one can imagine that this happens and how insane that would be to experience firsthand!  I challenge IMax to capture THAT on film!  

We continued to put main up and down, roll our jibs and genoas in and out as wind allowed or didn’t.  THE ENGINES HAVE NEVER BEEN USED THIS HARD OR THIS LONG.

We have a goal to get to Chiapas in the daylight.

3/27

Up since 2AM we finally get close enough to shore to get cell service.  We all hop on our phones when we awake to check in with the world back home.

I hear from friends we met in Lanzarote before crossing the Atlantic back in 2015!  Friends with Mexican cruising knowledge are fast to send us tips and advice on where to go, where not to go.  I’m so absorbed I can’t sleep on my off watch and am up until 11.  Pass out a couple hours, then make homemade bread, then grill cheese prociutto sandwiches.  

The crew devours them as we discuss our news from home.  

We will arrive before dark. The wind has finally cooperated but the current is still 2 knots on the bow.  We’ve been fighting that for over 24 hours.  The wind has been mostly on the nose too. Hence the iron genny’s.

We can feel the end of this chapter closing soon.  It will be different without the crew, it’s been special sharing this adventure with them and they’ve been a great help. They would not leave if we felt we needed them.  But Eric and I have done a lot of miles on our own and somehow sailing off of Mexico feels like we are super close to home.  But it’s still almost 2000 miles to San Diego!

We will take our time. If we can.  So many uncertainties.  Just found out our son in Madagascar was sent home to USA by the US Embassy.  He teaches school over there.  And of course the other 4 kids in the USA are in lockdown.  One is a principle for experiential learning at a group of charter schools in SF and is doing virtual learning with students.

2 are in San Diego working from home and kid #5 just had her wedding last month.  The timing was good and early enough that no one shared the virus thank goodness considering it was in snow country, close quarters for everyone, and some came from NY.  Chelsea cancelled he flight to the wedding. In hindsight we think she had Covid. If she hadn’t gotten the symptoms until she had already arrived at the wedding, who knows how many people would have suffered or even died. Dodged that bullet by a couple of days. Whew. 

We are sailing up the coast and sometimes very close to the beach. As safety officer I get nervous.  As renegade sailor who likes to go fast and also look at waves, Eric likes to go closer.  The compromise is when the swell lifts us up 4’ we tack.  Or if there is a sand bar (barre) ahead.

Both engines are blazing and we should arrive at sunset.

It’s amazing after 1000 miles how the landing can work out so close to dark.  

I’m ready with hand sanitizer for the immigration officers.  Have tidied up the boat and will cook mahi for last supper.  Tonight we will drink alcohol for the first time in over a week. John claims it’s the longest he’s ever gone without. LOL No one here is an alcoholic but when we are sailors and it’s our culture and release to drink spirits, you wonder sometimes.  The good thing is no one missed a drop and it’s easy to go without when you’re at sea.  Eric and I never drink offshore.  Seems like a bad idea.  Even when it’s calm out.  We wear life vests at night no matter what the conditions are.  Good habits that are easy to implement on others.

But tonight? Tonight we are gonna party a little bit!

Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua,

El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico – all in 9 days?!?

As we coast along this beach we see lots of palapas. Beach houses!  The sand is not white or yellow, rather volcanic looking so not as pretty as the Caribbean. Lots of palm trees though.

We didn’t get close to shore for most of the trip up.

Entered before sunset!  Huge swells. Close hauled up the coast.  Eric pushing it.

Upon arrival, 2 guys, Ronny and Polo take our lines.

Then the Harbor Master and the Navy show up with full Covid gear including masks and gloves!

Chiapas marina!

Before sunset, Ronny, Polo, then the Harbor master and Navy with the German Shepard.

All very chill and cool. Everyone smiling, polite, and careful.

We meet Miquel who was nicknamed El Pato as a kid, and then El gato! Are you kidding me?

We booked a tour with him after Eric cleared us in which took hours and hours.  

Simon, John and I went to the Mayan ruins,

a house where ladies made delicious tamales, Bought 4, then onto a house where a lady makes artisanal chocolate. And tortillas!  Finished up with hot chocolate. Bought a Mexican shirt, some chocolate and she gave me a fan as a gift.  

The boys booked tickets out of the wrong airport. Oops! Miguel takes them to the correct airport which is empty, and then takes me to Sam’s club letting me borrow his card. No one inside has a mask on except me and El Gato. I also wear gloves. When I try to buy 2 cartons of eggs I am told only one per family. They are starting to get it.

Now that Eric and I are on our own, and understand that Mexico is open for us to cruise north, we can take a breath and plan. We will sail north slowly, choosing our ports based on how many miles in a day can we go and still anchor and sleep at night. Our first trip will be crossing the Tehuanatepec which is famous for gnarly winds and sea states. The window is soon, and we are ready to head over to Huatulco!

The disappointment of not sailing west is slowly melting away. There are new adventures waiting for us. And discovering Mexico one port east a time seems like a really cool alternative. We just need to stay safe and healthy.

Uno Dos Tres, here we go!

Next blog will be about the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

Change of Plans

Last March we thought we were headed to the Marquesas. Little did we know how fast the Virus was spreading or how much it would affect our plans… I took notes and am finally catching up on our travels. The next blog will have more photos. Promise.

3/16/2020

Now that our last crew member for the Pacific crossing, Simon Garland had arrived on literally the last flight into Panama from San Diego, and the 4 girl friends, Marci, Sarah, Dianimal, and Teri had flown home after scratching plans to visit the old city (who knew when the airport would shut down), I needed to shop for the 3+ week crossing to the Marquesas. Better to shop for a month just in case. That’s a lot of food!!!But we have a large top loading fridge, 2 drawer type freezers, and tons of space for storing dry goods and drinks.

Sharing an Uber with a fellow Catana owner we headed to the big grocery store in town, often located in malls in when abroad.  Upon arrival we enjoyed a nice lunch and the owner, a young woman who spoke perfect English served up delicious food with healthy ingredients.  Her good taste coupled with a variety of ingredients made our tummies happy. The plan was to split up and meet after grocery shopping to share a cab home. 

Truth is I am a distracted shopper with others. It bothers me to have someone with me. I prefer to explore, especially in new countries and stores, take my time going up and down every isle, discovering what is different on their shelves, making decisions on the fly.  Yes there is a list, but seldom do I stick to it because I find things I didn’t know were there.  More fun to roam and imagine this or that with that or this.  My culinary skills are decent, and it’s fun to think of all the possibilities as I can cook most anything on the boat.  We tossed the grill out years ago when Eric decided he’d had enough of cleaning the damn thing before putting it away.  So everything is cooked indoors and I’ve got all the gadgets. Growing up in 3 generations of grocers, food has always been front and center in our houses. The joke is while we are all gathered and enjoying a great meal, we are planning the next one. My mother taught us how to celebrate with meals, and my sisters take great delight in cooking up amazing dishes that make my mouth water just thinking about them.  I am the baby so it’s a tough act to follow but I try. 

There was no way for me to finish shopping by the time we had agreed on.  Luckily we bumped into each other in the store and extended the departure time.  Sadly I was never going to be able to finish provisioning.   My cart was filled with dry goods and I had only studied the meats, cheeses and veggies thinking I would return alone the following day and take my time choosing and planning carefully. There were 4 mouths to feed, and a well fed crew is important.

What no one anticipated was Covid restrictions would be implemented that night.  The next day only 50 people were allowed inside the store at a time, masks required, and 6’ apart outside while waiting.  When I returned the line was around the block.  Not being a patient woman I asked the driver to take me to the market that sold fresh produce called Mesca Panama.  It wasn’t too far and well worth the extra Uber fare. Imagine Costco with rows and rows of produce, only produce, and imagine 10 of them next to each other.  That’s how big this fresh market was.  No lines, locals picking out their goods, and my driver was so kind he helped me carry the produce and loaned me $50 as my card wouldn’t work in the local ATM’s.  Even he was astonished at how quickly the world was changing in his own country. 

One of many warehouses with fresh everything from famers.
The reminder that no matter what happens with the virus, if we have food and stay healthy we can survive.

Loaded up with fresh things, we were still lacking meat, milk, butter, and cheese.  He took me to small Chinese owned stores (they are everywhere on every island in every country) and I was able to go right in and snap up the frozen chicken, sausages, chips, cookies, vodka, gin, and single wrapped butters.   It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but I learned my lesson.  Shop alone, take your time, and don’t share a cab when you are going to fill it up with your food and drinks! There’s no room for others. Anyway, I was certain we had plenty of provisions as I had stocked up on rice, beans, flour, and other dried goods that would far outlast the fresh things that would be gobbled up first.

Once we provisioned and fueled up, all we had to do was clear out of Panama, head to the Pearl Islands and self quarantine for a few days while exploring a beautiful area. We figured if Simon caught the bug on his flight into Panama, one of us would feel something within 3-5 days. And if we started sailing to Marquesas and someone got sick, we could turn back. We were not counting on 14 days to get sick, more like 10.  Seemed like a good plan. 

3/17 Our appointment for clearing out is at 11 at Flamingo Marina where our friends on Supertramp are located.  They too were excited to sail to the Marquesas. Turns out they are stuck because their dad can’t fly home to England, no one is allowed in, and he needs meds and can’t get them shipped. The local clinics are closed for anything except an emergency. Covid nightmares are starting to become real.  We can’t wait to get out of here.

John Forgrave and I ride our fold up bikes to customs and spot a sloth in a tree on the way.  I’ve been craning my head up for weeks trying to spot one and it was fitting to see it on our last day.  

After the documents are signed we head to the fishing store and notice a message on my phone saying to call our yacht insurance agent. “Urgent!” Our insurance covered us in the Med, the Caribbean, and we thought the premium was going down for the Pacific but we paid extra to go through the Panama Canal, were requested to have a rig survey, $$, and we thought it was all under control. But, now we are told our insurance company won’t cover, nothing we did or didn’t do, the company is changing its policies, and if we cross the Pacific we will not be covered.  Wait WHAT?!? It took our breath away.  So much planning that I can’t begin to write about it, not to mention juggling friends schedules, our mainsail drama and Panama Canal deadlines, all to be told we can’t go to the party.  We were devastated. Then Mad, Then Sad. Then we tried to come up with a solution. Switch insurance companies right?  Not as easy as you might hope or think.  We asked other cruisers who they used, especially those heading west, and we just couldn’t sort it out. Friends tried to help but to no avail. The hurricanes Irma and Maria had made a terrible impact on insurance companies and as far as we could tell we were stuck.  So we threw up our hands as we watched our fellow cruisers head off. It was sickening.

So, the new plan was to head to Les Perles, enjoy them while we self quarantined, then sail north.  All countries were closing their borders so we would sail straight through to Mexico, approx. 1000 miles.   If we could check in at Chiapas Mexico, John and Simon could fly home to their families who were now worried about them and Covid in general.  As you recall, most everyone was in a state of shock and panic in the beginning.  And in the days that followed we embraced the new plan.  All of us were in shambles, scratching our heads in bewilderment, wondering how did this happen? It was a Toal curve ball but like seeing a big wind shift, you have to adjust your sails and go the right way.

I actually started to get excited. Since the door to the Pacific crossing was closed, we would make the very best of the circumstances. We’d never cruised Mexico. We had however raced there over the years on others boats.  I’d raced to Manzanillo with Dennis Conner on Retaliation (1st), had done the MEXORC a couple times, and competed in the Women’s IYRU Worlds in Acapulco 1983 on a windsurfer (3rd). We’d both raced to Ensenada and Eric was on the winning team of Double Bullet to Puerto Vallarta. When you’re racing seldom do you leave the race site to explore your surroundings.  It’s all about hanging out with your friends and swapping sea stories.  In Mexico this also mean gorging on fish tacos and drinking enormous quantities of tequila. This time we would take our time sailing up the coast unless Mexico went on lock down and closed their borders.  El Gato had enough stores, water, and fuel to go all the way home so we were ready for anything. Our water maker was working well and the tanks hold 200 gallons. The fuel consumption can be like sipping when we use one engine, low RPMs, and there’s wind. Eric figured we could go over 1500 miles with both tanks full.  We were ready for anything and the boys were willing to sail all the way home if that’s what was needed. Staying 12 miles offshore would keep us in international waters if Mexico closed too. We had a fluid plan.

BONUS! Our permanent slip at San Diego yacht Club was assigned to us in November on the same day I won the Women’s Hobie World Championships!  Boy was that a day we’ll never forget.  With only 6 out of 600 slips big enough for cats we were fortunate to be at the top of the list when one came vacant. The timing was perfect.

How cool to be home with our yacht, embrace our community, share our stories, see our kids and friends, and wait out the Covid storm in a place that has good medical facilities.  The more we thought about it, the better it felt. 

There were still uncertainties, but at least we were going in the direction that was somewhat familiar.  I speak enough Spanish to get by, and learned in the Med that even without language, we can communicate with others.  I’d given our Spanish for Cruisers book to a fellow cruiser in Panama thinking we would not need it.  Bad move. And we had no cruising books on Mexico, not one shred of info other than Navionics that now includes Active Captain.  AC has been really helpful over the years.  People can write comments about the place and leave a marker so when you zoom in on a chart you can read their thoughts and opinions and sage advice.  We knew we could get home and would figure it out along the way.   At least we still have weather forecasts with PredictWind. 

A big sigh of relief as we heard the stories tumbling in from friends who had taken off just weeks and days before us.  Sea Bear, who we met in the Canal Islands, and reunited with in Panama, had sailed to the Galapagos only to be turned away. Never was I more relieved about not having spent the time effort and money to make reservations for Galapagos this year.  With 4 on board, they had provisioned for that 900 mile passage, not the extra 2000 miles to the Marquesas.  So sail on they did, catching fish and rationing food wisely.  And upon arrival they were told to stay on their boat.  One person per week allowed ashore for food and suppies.  No swimming off the boat, no paddleboarding, no nada.  Lock down in paradise. I can jump ahead now and say that are happy and cruising again but it was pretty messed up for several months. And NZ is still in lock down. NO VISITORS IN HURRICANE SEASON!

OK So now we are headed to Les Perles with our new Code Zero, our friends on board, to quarantine. We tell our family and friends, and set sail for a 35 mile jaunt to Les Perles. First stop is Isla Contadora. We leave after our new friends on Dualaseas, a Catana 50′, and pass them. Always the racers, we love to sail efficiently. After dropping the hook, we talk on the radio to them because, well, there’s Covid. We can’t do the normal cruising thing and invite them for sundowners.

There are a handful of sailboats here, all waiting for a good weather window to make the big crossing to the Marquesas. A woman rows up in her dinghy to chat. She is single handing her way across and tells us there are 2 other women doing the same. It is exciting to hear as we’d just met a young man who was on his own as well.

Still swallowing our own news, we need to decompress and embrace the fact that we are healthy and blessed. We have food, water, friends onboard, and can make it all the way home if the world comes to that. And that my friends, is the beauty of having a sailboat with 2 engines and full tanks, lots of sails, and fishing rods!

Next blog – Perle Islands.

The Panama Frickin’ Canal!

March 10 – Departed San Blas with Teri, Sarah, Diana, and the rescued mainsail. How nice to have our boat whole again and sail!

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It’s approx. 70 miles, a day sail to Shelter Bay Marina, on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, where we would meet up with Marci and John Forgrave on 3/11.

2 days after lie left San Blas it was closed due to Covid 19.  Our mainsail was 48 hours away from unable to retrieve.  Sovereign Grace, the yacht that delivered it to us would wind up being a ship without a port.  Captain John is now building an organic farm in Colombia with his wife and kids. He was  unable to deliver a note to Club Nautico’s Manager John with a tip inside but it’s not a priority anymore. The thought was there and John knows how thankful we were as we stayed in touch with both of them on WhatsAPP, the norm for anyone outside the USA. 

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Rendezvousing with Sovereign Grace to get our mainsail

The timing was not lost on us.  Less than 2 weeks later Colombia closed its borders.  We stayed one step ahead of many closures as the days ticked by.

SBM is one of our favorite marinas (truth is we rarely go to marinas) because yachts and crews are ready to or just did the transit, and have big plans for the coming year.

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The energy is intoxicating.

The docks are full of boats and their crews, unlike many marinas where people park and leave.  Cruising the Caribbean or crossing the Pacific are where the majority are headed.  Some go north towards the USA, stopping in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, San Salvador, Guatemala and/or Mexico, some south to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Chile, but most continue exploring and very few are Americans unless they are Canadians.  Many Canadians are cruisers but we rarely meet our countrymen. They tend to stay close to home. Bahamas, Catalina Island are their comfort zones.  What happened to the land of the free and the brave?  Nevermind.  Eric and I do our best to represent our country and almost always fly the Stars and Stripes off our stern.  

We attend the meeting for the Pacific Puddle Jumpers and meet others who are setting off on the same great adventure.  A few boats we met 5 years earlier as we prepared to cross the Atlantic.  Some we’ve just met and bond with immediately.  This is going to be a grand adventure so gathering info and materials is important.

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At SBM, the Caribbean side of the canal, there’s a bus to town for provisions and a sail loft on site to repair or order more sails.  A pool, showers, a smart friendly helpful marina manager named Juan,

IMG_8702a small store, laundry services and a restaurant means you have everything you need right there . There’s a resident crocodile so no swimming near the boats.  A handful of boats stay a long time either to wait out the weather or more often to wait for crew, parts and sail repairs.

Walk across the road and you are in the jungle hearing and quite often see howler monkeys, various types of parrots, and a plethora of flora and fauna.  There are relics from days of US servicemen stationed here as well.

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We often heard the howlers from the boat at day break and sun down.

IMG_8244The sound carries, and it’s similar to something made for a horror movie, a deep roaring monster.

IMG_8317Once a week there is a cruisers potluck, a good way to meet others and share experiences and info on islands and nations, and to share ideas on how to fix, install, find parts, and get things done.  There’s a daily AM cruisers net on VHF radio to share info and greet those who have just arrived, and say adios to those leaving.  It is a fluid community filled with characters that could fill a best selling novel.

On Mardi Gras the marina hires locals to dance for the cruisers on the docks.

IMG_8229IMG_8262Some of the Kunas set up shop for the World Arc that has already departed. I bought a couple molas and some beaded jewelry of which the ladies are covered in.  The women love color and so do I!  Still wearing my beads 4 months later as they don’t come off until they break.  Evidently they use strong string.

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I bought these 2 molas

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Lola

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She proudly posed for my curious eyes.  I took polaroids as well and gave them each one.

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3/11 The girls help us clean the boat for the new guests. Upon arrival we request the new guests to take showers and wash off the airport germs, then I head off to provision for the transit.  There is a rule that you must feed your advisors in the transit or they get grumpy and could order food delivered which is costly.  That’s not happening on El Gato!

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The water level was at an all time low so ships had to wait to go single file or be paired with a small boat or 2.

3/12 Our appointment for the transit has been confirmed by the agent we hired to do all the paperwork and get us cleared.  He tells us to watch the advisor closely.  If he is on his phone a lot, and something bad happens, we should have photos of him on the phone to prove he was not paying attention.  We’ve been hearing about canal nightmares lately and I’m getting nervous.  We love our boat.   The instructions are to be at anchor outside the marina near the canal at such and such Lat Long 2 hours ahead of schedule.  If we are not in the assigned area the agent says the advisor will go away, we will pay a huge fine, and we will have to wait a few more days to get back on the list. We have received the large inflatable buoys and lines that we rented and we’re ready to rock and roll!

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Teri and John testing their balance skills

We are there by 1PM with a 4 Pm transit confirmed.  Then we wait. And wait.  Not my strong suit.  We watch as other boats who came out later than us are boarded and head towards the canal.  It’s 5PM.  We call our agent, the port authorities, and get no answers.  At 6PM a boat comes to us and a man jumps onboard and says “let’s go!”.

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Advisor arriving 

We offer him water.  Someone goes below to fill a glass and he throws a fit.  “THE AGENT IS SUPPOSED TO TELL YOU I MUST HAVE BOTTLED WATER!”  We assure him this is filtered lovely water and he wants to know the agents name, birthdate, address, phone number, company name, and first born’s name so he can go find him and scream.  It takes hours for me to get him to relax and do his job without anger.  My team building muscles are being stretched and eventually he is calm.  Must have had a bad day so far.  Once things are less stressful Eric does a great job of asking him questions about the canal.  He loves the attention of being considered an expert and starts telling stories.  It was a rough start that ended well. The food was hearty and plentiful and he was not afraid to help himself.

We head towards the canal as the sun is setting.

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The advisor is already on his phone texting his GF!

IMG_8706I learn later she’s from Miami and he wants me to talk to her on speakerphone since I grew up there.  Trust me Miami’s changed.  I rode a horse bareback and played on my Hobie back then.  Now you’d have to drive an hour to have riding lessons in a ring and be enrolled in an Olympic class training session. My childhood had a lot of freedom and I’m not sure I if ever wore a life jacket, nor did my parents know where the heck I was 90% of the time.  Helicopter parents? HA! No wonder I am so fiercely independent and with a free spirit!

We are paired up with a 60′ monohull, French owner and crew, who are friendly and not intimidated or non trusting of a female captain.  They are just as excited as we are!

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Our partners for the first half.

Only one boat can drive and with 2 engines and a much wider boat of  25′, we will drive once the 2 are tied up together.  The advisor spends more time on his phone and my limited understanding of quickly spoken Spanish has me guessing what’s up.  Turns out we are waiting for a small tourist ferry to join us to make a threesome.  Luckily for us they take too long. The canal authorities say leave without them.  2 days later we learn the ferry joined another pair after they were in a lock, and they hit the wall.  Words and insurance info was exchanged. We felt bad for them but oh so glad it wasn’t us.  We think we could have refused that combo if it had been proposed to us.

The sun has now set and Eric has blown the conch shell.

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Our crew is happy, excited and ready.

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Crew boss holding a line handler meeting

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A fairly new bridge making the drive to Shelter Bay 2 hours from the airport instead of 6IMG_8716As we approach the first lock, a large ship is in front of us.  They will go first.

IMG_8719 It seems incredible that we will all fit.  The agent does not want me driving with my engines, to only use the rudders. I suppose they have had bad experiences with people who have no idea what angle their rudders are and the engines won’t turn the boat properly.  We however have good instruments that tell us the angle and I always center the rudders.  At first I do exactly what he says but when towing a boat on your side you need to have control and this is not the best solution. Sometimes you need a burst of power to push the boats and maneuver them.  Using engines as little as possible I keep us off the sides.  Since our throttles are on the starboard side we choose to have the mono tied to our stb so I can communicate with the French owner/capt, and his advisor.  Sometimes we override our advisor and wink.  I say yes to his commands, and then do what needs to be done, now and then asking the other boat to help with a burst of throttle. Considering we were working with 3 languages we did a pretty good job communicating.

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The doors are open. Notice the rushing water.

To transit you must have 4 line handlers onboard and we have essentially 5.  With 2 boats together you only need 2 line handlers for the lines that are tossed from high up on the walls. The cleats on EG are big and strong, our line handlers John and Sarah, are strong and quick with Teri and Diana backing them up.  Marci is in charge of social media and Eric is crew boss making sure all goes well. I keep my phone in my pocket and take photos mostly when the boat is tied up and the water level is rising.  Marci is videoing and all are snapping photos with phones when they aren’t busy.  It’s so impressive!

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Guess who is on his phone NOT taking photos. But we are safe for now.

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Check out the water flow. Without the lines we would be sliding all over the place!

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Obviously not to scale.

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It all goes well and we are in awe, especially Eric who is reading The Paths Between the Seas by David McCullem.  It is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the history of how it was conceived of, design, and built.  It was truly an epic feat.

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The path goes across 45 miles of land with a man made lake in the middle called Gatun that supplies the water to operate the locks.  The first 3 locks take us upwards to an elevation of 240′, and when we reach the lake we go left and the ship goes right.  It is 10PM, we are tired, and there will be no celebration tonight as we’ve heard is common when you’re half way through.  John jumps on the huge bouy that we are required to tie up to. A boat comes to whisk the agent away and he says be ready at 6AM.  Huh?  OK definitely not the time to celebrate.  It’s a quick dinner and we are all in bed, glowing from the experience of being in the middle of the Panama Frickin’ Canal!!!

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3/13 6AM arrives too soon, no agent in sight.

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We’ve been warned about the crocs that live here so Eric made it quick!

We forgot. 6AM means 9AM in manana land.  We hear howler monkeys.  A boat finally arrives with agents for all 4 boats, the pair that went before us, and our pair.  This agent has me gunning the engines towards the next set of locks that will take us down to sea level in the Pacific Ocean.  We have 28 miles to get to the locks so we turn our heads towards shore and enjoy the beauty and serenity of lucious greenery surrounding us on both sides.  It is a long winding path and we see other ships including a huge Costco cargo ship.

IMG_8779IMG_8775IMG_8772IMG_8765IMG_8766It feels like a race and in some ways it is.  This agent wants to go before the other pair so he can go home earlier.  When we arrive we learn we are paired with the monohull from the other group, also French owned.  Again, very nice and agreeable.  And this time no drama – our agent is happily doing his job.  Instead of behind, we are now in front of a large ship.  And I’ve been warned by the last advisor.  Make sure when they open that last lock you are ready to bolt!  “Theres a lot of current with the water rushing out and there’s a large ship behind you. You must get out fast!”  I’ve been nervous since the day before, or excited, or a healthy combination as there’s a lot of responsibility lying on my shoulders for not just one but 2 boat’s welfare. It feels similar to just before an important regatta.  Butterflies that won’t go away until the starting gun goes off.  Then it’s full concentration.

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Our crew does an excellent job, the weather is perfect, we have a friendly crew tied alongside, no grumpy people anywhere, and we are all grinning from ear to ear.  The preparation and waiting is finally over. We can check this sailor bucket item off our list soon but in the meantime we will relish every moment together with lifelong friends.  Eyes are wide open, soaking it all in.  And of coarse the cameras are too.  There is a live feed in the Miraflora lock and 2 friends have gone online to watch and take photos for us.  Debbie Risden and Diane Davis are Miami friends who send us shots as we go through.  It’s daylight so they can see us! We look minuscule in front of the ship.

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The advisor gets a phone call from our agent.  All ports have closed on the Pacific in Panama.  Huh?  The crew had planned to hang out a few days to explore Panama City and bid us farewell.   Things were changing fast.  Everyone got on their phones to figure out how to change tickets or buy new ones.  What if the airport closes? The what if’s were flying around the boat like a swarm of bees.  Luckily I’d made reservations the day before at a marina just on the other side of the canal at La Playita Marina, little beach marina.  But I hadn’t given them a credit card as I was uneasy doing this in an email and I couldn’t reach them by phone.  John speaks fluent Spanish and made the call.  They would honor our reservation and we would be the last boat allowed in. One step ahead. Again. So we continued on with the knowledge we had a place to stay until we left for the Marquesas.  Whew.

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The last gate opens.

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The girls find new flights and depart the next day.  It’s been a rich experience and we all hug tightly as we say our goodbyes.  Who knows when we will see each other again.  Our destinations include the Marquesas, Society Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand where we will watch the America’s Cup. The soonest would be in a year unless they fly out to meet us somewhere.  We have been friends for decades and this will be a memory none of us will ever forget.  I’m crying as we say bye bye.

Our last crew member, Simon Garland arrives on the very last flight from California to Panama. All we have to do is fill up with fuel and provision for the long haul to the Marquesas, approx 3,900 miles as the albatross soars.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

 

Estrogen in the San Blas Islands

Such a wonderful week with bestie captains, Diana Klybert, Sarah Cavanah, and Teri McKenna.

They arrived at night, we drank and stayed up late and the next am at 4 we departed for SB.

It was upwind in fairly big seas. As we exited it got really rough with the bow pitching high and low.  The going was slow to prevent damaging the boat.  Plus with no mainsail we headed right into the teeth of it.  Pounding is no fun for anyone including El Gato. Normally we would not go out in this, but we had to meet our mainsail and there were only a few days that we would have access to it.

By noon we hadn’t gone very far and when the port engine quit we opted to head into Linton Bay for a small rest.  Eric had it fixed in no time but we needed everyone to get settled.  Seasickness can hit the best of us after flying, drinking (dehydration), not enough to eat, and not enough sleep.  Eric and I were fine but the others were wiped out. IMG_8387IMG_8388Nothing like removing the enemy, the big seas, to get settled.  We explored Linton by dinghy, spent the night there and continued the next day. It was a good call.

Seas were on our beam instead of the bow, wind 15 kts, sun  shining.  As we ticked off the miles Eric and I got more and more excited.   We had a sail to rendezvous with!

Like many sailors doing a passage we threw out the fishing lines and caught a tuna.  I handed the line over to Sarah and warned her it was big.  Little did I know.  A 6′ shark had decided to eat the tuna! Dinner was NOT going to fish tonight.IMG_8395

Sarah worked hard and brought it up to the boat.  Luckily for Eric who normally takes the fish off the hooks, it got loose on its own after the photo ops. Nothing but the tuna head left.

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We rendezvoused with Captain Jack who had our mainsail on Sovereign Grace, a backpacker boat.   He shared coordinates before he left Cartagena of where he would be each day with his passengers. 

As we rounded the corner and saw the yacht it was such a welcome relief. To FINALLY get our mainsail back after so much angst and worry was the best feeling!!!

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 They hoisted it up with a halyard and lowered it onto EL RATON.  We then hoisted it up with our halyard and the happiness was felt all around. IMG_8409IMG_8410

From there the first anchorage was the Swimming Pool, BBQ Island, East Holondes area where our friends Reg and Deb live on their yacht Runner.  They came over for a lively dinner where they entertained us with stories and laughter. Their favorite boat wine is a box of Clos and Reg likes to say “it’s not French wine, but it’s close”. IMG_7372

The following day we headed to the Esnasdup, aka the Lagoon. We swam over to friends Mike and Laura, the couple from South Africa we met in St Andres.  An invitation to come aboard and then it was disclosed sometimes crocs have been spotted in the lagoon. Laura said if you see a log approaching swim faster to your boat.  OMG.  Dinner on board El Gato with Caren Edwards from Serenity who we met back in Grenada, and Dianne and her husband from Kokopella who are practically locals.

The next day we went for a group snorkel on the reef. 

The virus was in the background but had not affected anyone here. Yet. 

There are a handful of boats that stay down here all season and they really know the people and the places.  I always bring my phone with me to make waypoints on Navionics, and to take photos.  

Kokpella sent over some mola makers and we really enjoyed shopping for art right on board!  

IMG_8455The 2nd boat had Mola Lisa onboard.  The Gunas are a matriarchal society and Lisa was born and man but brought up as a female.  Too many men born that’s what they do.  We organized to meet her the next AM for a waterfall tour. IMG_8475IMG_8470IMG_8467IMG_8469

Eric joined all the girls and after a 45 minute ride on their panga we hit the trail. It wound through the jungle, passed through a graveyard, and Mona Lisa picked pointed to and picked plants to show us.

and Mona Lisa picked pointed to and picked plants to show us.

The best were the flowers that we modeled as big red lips.

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The waterfall was a welcome relief after hiking for an hour. We slid down rocks and enjoyed our lunches which we shared with our guides.

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IMG_8541Heading down we followed the fall instead of a path.  Much cooler. Eric and Sarah found a vine to play Tarzan and Jane.

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We stumbled upon an almost finished ceremonial dugout on our way back down.

IMG_8578Lisa invited us back to her village to meet her niece who lives with her.  IMG_8583

IMG_8631It was the nieces week of celebration and after school she would be part of a ceremony in her home.  

IMG_8589She wanted me to take photos of her niece to record one part of the event.  When a girl gets her first menstruation cycle the rites of passage begin.  Possibly embarrassing but the whole village is involved.  We were not allowed to stray from the house and would not have witnessed anything if it weren’t for the fact it was Lisa’s house. 

IMG_8593IMG_8591IMG_8590She had the authority and permission to bring us in.  We felt very honored.  After a full tour of the house we were taken into a special room decorated with fresh banana leaves.  It was dark. There was a ceremonial dugout filled with water and chocolate.  IMG_8594

Lisa explained that the gourds on the floor were used by the women to cleanse the girl.  But where was the girl?

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As I peeked around the corner in the dark I could not see anything yet Lisa told me the girl was there. So I took a photo and lo and behold there was a girl sitting on a large turned over bucket for a stool. 

IMG_8599 A pretty young shy thing waiting for the elders to come and cleanse her.  They take gourds, dip them in the ceremonial canoe, and rinse her off fully clothed. 

IMG_8606 I imagine back in the day they may have been naked.  As I said it was dark in there and she would sit in there for the next few hours getting rinsed every 30 minutes. 

IMG_8610 Teri and Dianamal are not normally the chefs and took great delight in trying to feed us all.  Listening to them trying to figure things out was great entertainment for Sarah and me. :-).

IMG_7377IMG_8417 If you are wondering how Eric handled all the estrogen he was a champ.  He knows all the women well and we’ve sailed with them enough to know there would be no drama.  Just eager helpers in any endeavor.  The best kind of crew. And of course, they love him too. What’s not to love?!?

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A few more days of island exploration…

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IMG_8689IMG_8635IMG_8638IMG_8641IMG_8642IMG_8643IMG_8644combined with lots of giggles and appreciation for being together, we headed back to the Canal entrance area and Shelter Bay Marina. Marci and John Forgrave would be flying in to join us for the canal crossing. That was confirmed to happen in 2 days. 

And right after we departed the San Blas, it was closed to visitors due to the virus. 

We were staying one step ahead.  

Mainsail Rescue

It’s been ages since the last blog. Why? Take a wild guess!                      No internet and no time are the main culprits.  It’s time to catch up and so I’ll begin with how we rescued our main.  First let me say we did not buy a new main and have it shipped to Colombia.  We had a new main that was a few months old, and the head ring broke on our last day of sailing for the season as we entered Colombian waters.

It’s a long story, with so much angst, worry and bad energy that I won’t get into the details.  Let’s suffice it to say our sailmaker should have put the strong ring on that we requested and it slipped through the cracks. We paid the price.   2 mortgages in fact!    But we hope they will pay us back when we get home.  It’s the right thing to do.  You make a mistake, you own up right?  This could have had a much different ending if the ring had broken the night we were racing the clock in the pirate zones.  That was only 2 weeks prior! I digress.

The rescue is the interesting part so I’ll share that.

We decided when there was only one week left (after almost 2 months) before the Colombian customs would destroy, yes you heard it destroy our main, we’d fly to Bogeta from Panama and meet the agents who kept telling us not to worry. Week after week we would be told only one more paper, maybe we send it Friday.  These guys.  Nice guys, but we still don’t have a recipe for the first $950 we paid by bank transfer.  It’s Colombia.

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We had a meeting in the AM with the 2 agents, and a translator on the phone who lived in Bogeta, who is a friend of an international judge for sailing, and was contacted via FB. The translator let me know something sounded fishy. Indeed.  But what to do.  We told them we wanted to go directly to DHL as we had already tried to go through DHL USA who said they could not help us. Neither could the shipper in Miami who is known for international shipping. Eric and I would camp out until they released the sail.  The translator said he had family that could help if this didn’t work so we had a back up. Nothing like family in Colombia!

It took all day, and several men running around trying to figure it out, but $2300 in cash later, we saw the sail come out of jail.  It was promptly loaded into a truck of a customer we met in DHL who befriended us.  He told us when he saw us sitting there he was very curious, saying he felt we did not belong there.  He was right!

After loading it onto Copa Airlines in the cargo area, we all headed back for a beer to celebrate.  These guys were almost as happy as we were.  And the customs agent came too, saying our sail was a gonner if we hadn’t showed up.  WHY?  We will never know.  Too much paperwork and something about it being a fabric and the Chinese doing copyright infringements making them paranoid, blah blah blah.  3rd world BS where the cash helped.

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So, the next step was how to get it to us in Panama without flying it here and having this possibly happen again.  Panama is easier, and yet we learned it also has its own problems with shipping. And by now as you can imagine we were trying to save ourselves time and more $. The best option was to send it on a boat.  There is a company that takes backpackers to the San Blas Islands twice a month.  Originally they said no problem.  Now they said they are full.  I begged them to bring it and reminded them it doesn’t eat, need a bunk, and won’t barf.  For $300 and a chuckle they said yes. We texted on WhatsApp and got the coordinates of where they would be and on which days.  The San Blas has very little cell service so we had to meet them or the sail would go back to Cartagena.

Our friends Teri, Sarah, and Diana arrived and the next AM we left at 4AM thinking we would be in SB by sunset.  It was much too rough, we had to slow down, and we arrived the following day after managing to catch a tuna that caught a shark.

It was such a sweet reunion!  We met Sovereign Grace and they hoisted it on to El Raton, and we took it back to it’s proper home.

El Gato was finally all in one piece again, we could keep our Panama Canal transit date, our friends who had flown in could sail with us, and we could continue the dream of sailing across the Pacific.  First the Marquesas, Cook Islands, American Samoa’s, Fiji, and New Zealand in time for the America’s Cup! We had friends going a few days before us, and we could not wait to share this incredible adventure with them and friends and family and charters who would join us.

 

3/7/2020 Things were finally falling into place!

What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

Bazurto and BS

Today I went on an early morning adventure with Pete from El Gecko.

The bazurta is the market place for locals. Heading out at 6:30am means we arrived when they were unloading trucks with mountains of veggies and the carts that fill the streets with fruits and veggies were being loaded up. The song Who Will Buy from Oliver was ringing in my ears and sometimes I sang it aloud. Such a cornucopia of colors! The people were nice and kind and more than willing to have a photo taken. I always ask.

Our mainsail is still stuck in Bogeta and we hope to find a resolution when we return to the states. Too much to go into. Suffice it to say it’s a nightmare. We have until March 3 to sort it out. And then it gets destroyed. So somehow we will find help.

Tonight we sail to Panama so we can fly home for daughter Helena’s wedding.

200 miles.

Cartagena – Put it on your list!

Think Europe with a Latin flair, or Latin with a European flair. Add some African spice, throw in the colors of the Caribbean, traditions and cultures from the indigenous tribes, and you have Cartagena!

It’s a fabulous and unique place to visit.

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When you go, stay in the old walled city for at least a few days to enjoy culinary delights, culture, and the sights and sounds of a vibrant city.  You’ll see ladies in their colorful outfits posing for photos with fruit baskets on their heads on every corner.  They show the old ways when after the slaves were freed, those who had run away and hidden in the mountains could come down and sell their harvests to the city folks. IMG_7534

The Castillo de San Felipe is within walking distance and the Volcano Totuma and Pink Sea are an hour away by car.  There are plenty of beaches but since we live next to one in San Diego, it wasn’t a priority.

Taxi’s are cheap and food can be too.  It all depends on your budget. We spiced it up by doing a bit of everything.  Truth is Eric has missed a lot of it by working on the boat but at night when he comes back we stroll around the city and find something delicious to reward his hard work with.

Our first trip to Cartagena in July started with a hectic day of checking into customs and racing the clock to get to the boatyard in time to haul out.  We sailed from the San Blas (off Panama) and on the way our mainsail fell down when the ring that holds it up failed.  So grateful it didn’t happen near the pirate zones!

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We took a 6 month break with Eric returning in October to do a few jobs.  Upon returning in January kids Bobby and Chelsea joined us.  But before I show those photos, here are some of the examples of the colors of houses and restaurants in Cartagena. I never get tired of walking the streets and seeing how beautiful they are! OK some of the color combos might not be my favs, but it is the Caribbean with style.  The bougainvilleas growing out of the sidewalks add the perfect touch.  I will be adding some to our house someday.  We only have one, and it is not sculpted like these beauties.

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Kids trip.  That is not them in the line for immigration BTW.

Castillo de San Felipe.  This is how they guarded the treasures they took from Colombia to give to their kings.  Until it was built, Sir Francis Drake was successful in his attempts to capture the city.  One of the places where he holed up in is now a boutique hotel in the old city.  Bobby and Chelsea practiced their firing skills and overcame their fear of walking into low lit passages that seem to have no way out.

Some interesting facts:  Cartagena Colombia (sp not Columbia) has a sister city in Spain with the same name.  We’ve been to both.  The Spanish Cartagena is where they received the goods from here.  But another sister city is Coral Gables in Miami Florida.  I went to Coral Gables High School!  There is a statue of a pair of children shoes in CocoPlum made by Botero, the same artist who made the big naked lady in the Santo Domingo plaza, and Boll Koch (a former boss at A3) owns a couple of these as well.  Botero, the Colombian sculptor,  is well known in the art circles. Notice how her butt is shiny?  Her breasts are too from everyone rubbing them for good luck and photo ops.

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There are all kinds of restaurants so we sampled as many as possible.  This is one’s Mexican! Below are photos of where we stayed.  It’s an AirBnB right in the center of the city.

This is Gestamani.  It’s a very hip section of the old city filled with artists, good food, and hostels.  So colorful!

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One day we headed to the Volcano Totumo and then the Pink Sea with Alvaro, our driver, a local who also works on El Gato.  Always nice to show a local his own country’s fun spots.  He was laughing at both places because he’d never been and could not believe what he saw. Suddenly he was a tourist too.  But before we committed to taking the plunge in to the mud, we took a short boat ride to a little island.

On the way back Bobby declared he was down.  So we all decided yes, we are here, we should go for it.  Never ever in my life did I expect I’d go willingly into a mud bath, with others, but the good news it didn’t smell.  Some smell like sulphur and I think I would have puked. Now THAT would be gross!

When we emerged the kids looked like Avatars. I just looked dirty and chunky.

IMG_7744IMG_7751I love how when the mud dries it becomes art on your body! Getting it aloof was a task and there were ladies grabbing our arms and pulling us into the water to wash us. For a small fee of course.

Next stop was the Pink Sea.  They used to harvest salt and evidently there’s a company ready to resume.  In the meantime, it was not easy to find, but well worth the effort.  It was blowing hard that week.  Glad we were not on our boat!

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This is Alvaro and our local Pink Sea guide.                                                                         He wanted photos to show HIS family!

Sadly, when I asked to hop out to see the local beach, I found tons of plastic trash washed upon the shore.  People, it is not getting better!

I ate a Big Ass Ant one day.  I had taken a Polaroid photo of this man a few days earlier, gave it to him, and he remembered, so he let me try an ant without buying. Crunchy, salty, and would not eat them again unless I was starving.

We saw a monkey and a sloth in a tree in the park too. 

On the last night with the kids, there was a wedding across the plaza. What a charming place to tie the knot!

So Eric and I moved over to Gestamani for a week to finish getting the boat ready.

IMG_7852 The port engine wouldn’t start and we were still waiting for our NS main to arrive from the states.  So while we waited I did laundry and activated our satellite devices.

Love this place. Laundry and beer! And of course WiFi.

They sold pizzas and fresh juices too. How cool is that?  You’re already hanging out waiting for your laundry, you might as well eat, drink, and meet other people doing the same thing.  Brilliant. I challenge someone to do this in the states.

Launching tomorrow, Friday and the plan is to sail to Panama (approximately 250NM) on Sunday after cleaning, getting our main, provisioning, and then San Blas (50NM) after checking in to customs on the mainland.

Then to Shelter Bay Marina (80NM) by Feb 4th and keep El Gato at a dock so we can fly home for Helena’s wedding!

Lots to do and of course we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Life is good.  EAT SAIL LOVE!!!

San Blas Islands

Sailing from St Andres to the San Blas Islands is approx. 250 NM.  For us this means less than 2 days sailing comfortably.  Leave super early, sail overnight, and arrive before the sun sets.

Many ships congregate on this path to transit the Panama Canal.  We kept a good lookout and relied heavily on our instruments to keep us safe.  You want to hope that someone is on deck of these big ships especially at night watching their instruments, but don’t rely on it.

This is an example of what we studied on our chart plotter and in daylight saw. We are the black boat and the lines show the projected tracks.  When you click on the white boat it pulls up important info like they’re course and heading, how close they will be, and time until it’s as close as it will be, barring a course change by either of us, and how big and fast it is.

Sometimes they are too close for comfort and we change course.

Often we get stowaways and this bird was doing a balancing act on the forward cleat while we bounced in waves.  I was able to get really close to take photos. We name all birds who join us Petey.

Once we got past the Canal it was time to weave our way into the islands that are surrounded by reefs.  It should never be entered at night and we had enough daylight but it was overcast.  Our Panama cruising guides helped us navigate the trickiest bits.  Completely depending on electronic charts is a bad idea in places like this.  You must look, use cruising guides, and check the chart plotter. One good thing about Navionics though, they are updated when someone tracks the bottom. And cruisers can make notes and share info.  When we arrived at our destination we were nestled in a protected little area with only 3 other boats.

 

The surrounding islands were small and serene.

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We saw no buildings, only a grass hut and some whales bones near a beach.

One boat was clearly a charter making lots of noise, music blaring, for such a quiet peaceful location.  Luckily the next morning it departed and we got to see and feel how special and unspoiled this area is.

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Eric found a bar where evidently tourists are brought over and served drinks.  I’m sitting at a chair and table made of tree stumps.  It’s a long haul to get here by boat but definitely worth it.

The chief rowed over to collect $10 for his Kuna tribe. His kayak is no doubt a gift or lucky find, the paddle home grown.

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Launching our Kona SUP’s that double as windsurfers we took off for some exploration.

So many little islands with sandy beaches and reefs everywhere!

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On our travels we met the owners of another yacht hailing from New York.  He used to be a stock broker in NYC, she was originally from England and a hair dresser, and after they met they bought a boat, sailed south, and stopped.  They’ve been here for 20 years!  Talk about finding paradise and staying put.  I should have written their names down and taken notes so I apologize for this but they were lovely.  She took us snorkeling a couple days later after we had them over for sundowners.  They returned the sundowners on their boat with the only other couple in the sweet little bay. IMG_5318

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BBQ Island got it’s nickname from Mr NYC when he started hosting a Friday BBQ every week.  We were off season so no BBQ but it was nice getting to know them without a crowd.  Now he spends his time collecting trash on the islands and she snorkels each and every day and collects tiny little creatures to feed her fish in her aquarium.  This was a first.  No cat, no dog, no bird, but fish as pets. LOL

Good story.  As Eric and I are getting a ride out to the reef she tells us a few weeks ago several friends got together and went to this reef at night.  One person yelled “blowfish”, and a few seconds later another yelled ‘Crocodile!”.  Everyone thought he was joking but went over to where he was pointing his flashlight and they all shone theirs. Low and behold there was a big croc laying on the bottom.  When all the lights hit him he opened wide and they took off, almost walking on water to the dinghy!  She tells us this as we are about to take the plunge in.  Dios Mio!IMG_5270

The following day we take the dinghy to an island with many huts. BTW these natives don’t have electricity, are not allowed to marry outside their Kuna people, and are very sweet, short, shy yet friendly.  Or maybe tolerant ism the word? They live off the sea and profit from visitors who buy their molas and bring them gifts.  It is a matriarchal society. The men fish and the women sew the molas which are colorful artworks made of fabrics woven together to create pictures of nature or other designs.  We brought sewing needles, fabric and long sleeve shirts that help with mosquitos.

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It was fascinating to check out their huts and see how life used to be in a simpler time.IMG_5288

Whale bones and art from the sea.

IMG_5319Eric loved checking out their canoes which were hollowed out trees.

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And I loved meeting the people. Little batman is with his grammy who is in charge of this tribe. Check out the beads around her legs and arms.

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My kids bought me a Polaroid camera so next time we go I’m going to give them photos, not just take them.

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Once a week a boat comes out with food for the cruisers.  They can place orders and in our case I just looked to see what they had and bought some fruit and veggies.

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All in all a trip of a lifetime.  We loved it so much we will return on our way to the canal after we depart from Colombia in January 2020.

The Polaroid camera needs some love!

Pirates of the Caribbean!

Yes they exist…

Waiting for a weather window in Isla Mujeres next to an Israeli catamaran we noticed a pattern.  The wind was howling from the East through the Caribbean with no letting up for the next 10 days, and that was the forecast every single day. You can get a reliable forecast for 5 days and after that the percent of accuracy fades.   We needed to head SE before we could head to Panama, as Nicaragua juts out to the East between the Yucatan and Panama.  Our insurance requires us to be south and we want to be there too.  Hurricanes are no fun. No fun at all and the season was approaching.

Finally we met someone who helped us make a critical change of course.

Instead of heading SE, beating upwind and bashing the boat to get around the dangerous banks off Nicaragua; dangerous because there are hidden rocks but even worse, pirates who cling to them and attack unsuspecting boaters.  Brad advised us to consider motor sailing east or even east north east towards Cuba, hugging the coast but keeping 12 miles offshore to stay in international waters, then stopping in Grand Caymen, and Then head south.  We exchanged e mails with him for our IridiumGo and he not only kept in touch, but also watched the weather and our path.  In addition to Brad, we had friends onshore across the USA knowing our plans, tracking us, sometimes chatting with texts, and we made sure they knew if and when we left, changed routes, and when we landed.  This was the first time I was extremely diligent about keeping people in the loop of our plans.  We will continue to do on long passages as it worked really well when things got rough. And rough they got. For us and for our friend Kat who was on a boat that followed our lead in trying to get south and around Nicaragia safely.

The sail to Grand Caymen took approx. 2 days.  Day 1 was spent sailing across the narrow  strong Gulf Stream (again). 

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Check out the dark red next to the tip of Mexico. That’s the Gulf Stream.

It took us north of our rhumb line course but once we were alongside the south side of Cuba things calmed down and we motor-sailed until the wind filled in again the following day. 

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Using Predict Wind we can predict and analyze currents and weather. This photo shows what the current will be like after we pass Grand Caymens. As we drag the curser along a timeline the conditions move too.

Sailing off Cuba, almost retracing our wake in the opposite direction from February, we were sailing at night in awe of the majestic feeling when out at sea away from land, Wifi, and all the other trappings we get comfortable with.

On top of the cabin to watch shooting stars and satellites on a moonless night studded with stars, planets and the Milky Way, we found ourselves marveling at the beauty that surrounded us.   There is no ambient light off Cuba to diffuse the universe’s brilliance. We were alone.

A half moon rose at 01:00 and a tint of the Sahara dust was in our nostrils.

The dust actually helps prohibit cyclone activity by keeping humidity lower. Always grateful for nature to behave.

As much as we hope not to arrive at night to new destinations, we arrived around midnight but it was calm and easy breezy.   We did not have to enter a harbor, rather we needed to find a mooring ball on the lee side of the island.  Happy that Garmin, Active Captain and Navionics are all combined now.  That means we can look at a chart, zoom into an area, see an icon, click on it and read what other cruisers have said.  Lots of input and great advice out there.  We called the Port Authority who were courteous and helpful and picked up a free mooring for the night.  Always grateful to have a good nights sleep.  

The next 3 days were filled with exploring the island (not much there if you don’t have a boat or access to one) and the highlight was swimming with dozens of rays who would eat out of your hand,

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There are rays everywhere surrounding these folks. We jumped in and joined them

then eating at Rum Point where the Mudslide drinks were invented.  Think ice cream and Baileys.  Rum Point got its name from all the rum kegs that washed up on the beaches from shipwrecks that didn’t see the barrier reefs.