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.

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.

June 29th

The big question hovers over our heads.

Do we stay or do we go?

Usually the forecast gives you the answer.  This time however many variables are in place.

#1 It is hurricane season and with global warming we take this very seriously.

Not only does our insurance company require us to be south of Latitude 12 40 by July 1st, we know that storms can come at any time.  There are 48 hour outlooks, and 5 day outlooks for cyclone activity, but when you are 3-4 days from the next safest port that isn’t much of a window. And if we are on a passage and something brews we need to head south and fast! South ids Venezuela.  We are not allowed to go there (insurance), nor do we want to.  Remember Sir Peter Blake at the famous Kiwi who was shot and killed when they were boarded by pirates?  He was working with the Cousteau Society.  I digress.

A British hurricane relief ship is right behind us and has been here for days. They have a lot of territory to cover!

2# The wind is howling across the Caribbean and hasn’t let up nor will it for the next 10 days. Seas are building. Currently around 6-10′.

#3. The CAPE factor which measures instability in the atmosphere is at its appex. Instablility translates to likelihood of clouds building because of the humidity and heat thereby forming large cells which can and often include lightening.

From a scale of 1-10 the CAPE is now a 10. I used to be afraid of sharks.  Now it’s lightening because it can take out all our instruments and all things with batteries, wires, bluetooth and and and.  It can cause a fire which would be only one of two reasons we would abandon ship, the other being on a reef and sinking or something like that.   So yeah, I do not like lightening at all.  We will dodge the squalls in a game aptly called Dodge Squall. 

#4. The waves will be on our beam. If we head south towards Panama we should miss the pirates off Venezuela, but the waves will be on our beam, not a good choice.  So we will head high to begin the journey then head down when things get more spicey.  That keeps us in the CAPE zone longer. Ugh.

A few other cruisers arrived and were planning the same route. When it looked like once again no real decent weather window we decided to head out. The Caribbean winds were still howling but we’d have over 100 miles before we’d reach them.  Jamaica was a bit of a buffer to the east.

The other boats arrived after us and needed more time for provisioning and would leave the following day.  Our boat is faster so we didn’t feel like wasting any more time, plus they were going straight to Panama and once again we were thinking of changing plans.  Instead of going to Panama or the Bocas de Toros, an archipelago off of Costa Rica and owned by Panama, we would break up the trip and stop in Colombian Islands La Providencia and St Andres.  Again, always good to stop, see new places and sleep when it’s just the 2 of us. Changing our plans had become a pattern and each one was working out for the best.  

So there we were, leaving after checking out of customs, hoping the storms predicted would abate or just calm down and stop, but no, they were going to be an all afternoon and evening slalom course.

  The sailing was decent, we were making good time, sailing SE between Grand Caymen and Jamaica. 

However it was one of the worst nights we’ve experienced since we started cruising 5 years ago.

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The idea was to sail the fastest point of sail as far east as possible before the wind howled and the seas built and then head down towards Panama surfing and sailing with the wind and seas at a good angle to push us along.  Using radar to track storms, we also had our eyes peeled to watch out for those that were still developing.  When you see a cloud that reaches up to the heavens it’s not good.  Our senses were on high alert.  During the day it’s obviously easier to watch storms grow, but at night when the lightening sparks up the entire sky with tentacles reaching in every direction it gives you a good indication of how large the storm and clouds are.  That night it was frightening.  Nervous Nelly here doesn’t touch anything metal, puts all electronics that aren’t being used in the microwave to protect them, and hopes we are lucky.  Of course we were changing course and using our best storm tactics we could and that helped a lot.  But sometimes it’s all about timing and ours was good and lucky.  If we left a couple hours later we could have been under a huge cumulomambonimbus.  This the name of the monster of all clouds that can reach over 50,000′!

No dodging it as we looked back and saw it take over the sky behind us.  Ay yay yay.  And that was the afternoon!  Anyway, we worked hard all night and finally got past all that s—t by morning.  Cruising along at 10-13 nicely, taking naps on our off watches we rested up for one more night offshore.  

That night Brad saw our tracks and that we were headed too close to the Seranillo Banks.  There is a light on this small bank and an outpost for the Columbian Armada however he said they are not always on station and there are 2 boats missing at the moment who were in this area. WTF!?!

And while we thought our course was taking us safely far enough off of Nicaragua, it turns out even at 200 miles offshore we were too close.  The pirates are now hanging off of tiny little cays way out to sea, waiting for boats to come by and attack.  Some have AK47’s, other have machetes, but how do you know until they are alongside?  We’ve seen the movie Captain Philips twice.  It’s not pretty. And we’ve read the CSSN reports that lately have reported piracy and deaths in this area of the Caribbean.  This we do not take lightly.  So when our new buddy in Mexico wrote us at midnight saying we were heading towards a pirates den we freaked!  There was a choice.  Head upwind and bash in 20-25 knots, 8-12’ seas, or keep sailing on a broad reach, hauling ass, turn all lights off, AIS off, and use eyes and radar while heading a little deeper and keeping 40 miles inside the cays.  We chose the latter.  We grabbed our machete, bear spray, flare gun and placed it on the galley table.  Just in case.  In hindsight it was a joke.  At the time we had no idea some boats have AK47’s which was probably a good thing.  And honestly, we know that if we ever get boarded we have to hope and pray they don’t hurt us.  Having a gun onboard means you must be willing to shoot to kill, be trained for that, and hope they don’t shoot first. We will give them everything. Just don’t take our lives.

  Our thought process included the fact that it was rough out there.  To try and keep up or board a boat would be extremely difficult. For them to spot us they would need to be close enough to see us in the pitch black night.  That would be extremely lucky unless they had radar. Which some might if they’ve hijacked a boat with it. More often the reports are about pangas so sailing over 10 knots boat speed means we can outrun most of them.  The conditions were very prohibitive for boarding or keeping up so we went for it.  And it worked.  We sailed through the night like a ghost ship communicating with friends, sharing our location and staying on high alert throughout the night.  

It was a long night filled with adrenaline. We saw cargo ships on AIS that were heading north after passing through the Panama Canal but other than that nothing, nada.

As dawn emerged it was a bit hazy but otherwise good weather conditions and we still had plenty of wind. Our next island was another 50 miles away.  That felt relatively close.   And then it happened.  A ship showed up on radar but not on AIS.  All commercial ships must use AIS.  We decided to turn our AIS on to help ships see us.  This ship was not heading north in the opposite direction, it seemed to be pacing us but staying 4 miles away.  And it was big enough to show up on radar yet we couldn’t see it with our eyes. Using binoculars it was blending into the hazy horizon and then we finally understood why.  It was a metal grey Colombian Armada frigate (Coast Gaurd) patrolling the area.  Providencia is a Colombian island and there is still a fair amount of drug traffickers out there plus did we mention pirates so they were doing their job patrolling. They eventually moved on but it certainly got our heart rate pumping!  Again!

The exception to using AIS (which we also experienced in the USA) is that Naval ships go under the radar when they are practicing or trying to hide.  Now we knew why this ship was undetected except for on radar.  Now we truly felt safe(r).  

Arriving in La Providencia, we were deservedly exhausted and after calling in to the authorities we went straight to sleep.  Never did we need to relax more from 2 nights at sea! IMG_5065

IMG_5066After a lengthy and costly check in with the infamous Mr. Bush we did a walk about. The process included a scooter ride.IMG_5094

There were many Colombian tourists coming from the mainland by ferry from Nicaragua. A carnival had taken place the day before and the island was littered with trash.   This island deserved more time than we gave it, but the clock ticked on and we felt the urge to keep moving south.

But not before we did a dinghy discovery cruise to the small island called Catalina.  Since we live in San Diego when not cruising it felt fitting to go see this little paradise.

The decision to move on was a good one.  After checking out of customs we pulled anchor at 12:30, and 56 miles later, arrived at 19:00, or 7PM. As we rounded the reef and corner of St Andres we jibed and were flying at 9 knots in the channel.  The Armada came  out to greet/board us in a fast RIB, requesting us to slow down with hand signals.  I was driving and gestured not possible.  A large tanker called us on the radio and asked us to hug the starboard side of the channel – they were departing. The channel bends and as things go we passed each other right at the bend.  They were sliding sideways, there was a reef on our right, a large metal government buoy, and no room for error.  They stopped skidding just in time and we passed close but not dangerously close.  It was yet another case of good seamanship in tight conditions.  When we finally got the anchor down it was dusk and the Armada came aboard.  The group comprised of 3 young men and 1 women.  They divided and conquered with one staying on their boat, one doing the paperwork and the other 2 looking through El Gato. They lifted every cushion, opened every drawer, and checked under each and every hatch board. We’ve never had such a thorough inspection even in Cuba where we could have smuggled someone out easily.  Maybe they would be OK with that? We’ll never know.

It’s a little embarrassing to see what they see, or see it through their eyes.  We have rum and wine stashes under 3 bilges! My bra was on the desk top in our cabin, and dirty clothes were draped over the hamper.  Needless to say we weren’t expecting company and there was no time to tidy up.  

They were relaxed and fine with me snapping photos.

The female agent hailed from Bogota and spoke a little English.  She wanted to know the difference between the words for sailboat and sailor.

Knowing some keys words is good in any country but the most important thing when traveling to new countries is to be very polite and smile.  When you make them feel human, like fellow beings and respect them for doing their job, it really helps ease the process.  It’s always been our goal to make them smile, and most times it’s easy.  When it’s not, it becomes a challenge.  So far we have achieved our goals.

While we were barreling down the channel on our way in being chased by the Armada we got a radio call from Kelly on NautiKal, guiding us in to the anchorage and offering help.  They are friends of a friend named Caren on Serenity who we met in Grenada and had let them know we were coming.

 Kelly and Darren – NautiKat invited us over for wine and chats and we enjoyed meeting and sharing stories discovering we have mutual cruising friends like Christine and Matt on Sugar Shack and Cindy and Steve on Willow.   So nice to meet fellow cruisers and let our hair down after so much sailing and worrying.

The next day we rigged our windsurfers and saw 2 dinghies return from a session of kiting.

Mike – “We kite in the AM, do boat jobs, coffee at 4 onshore with friends, dinner, rinse and repeat!”

  He gives me the best mental picture of how to kite than anyone ever has.  As much as I’ve watched and even commentated on kiting during the AC Open races, I have not gotten past the blast and splash and have put my foot in the sand about trying again.  Even Eric has decided it’s easier to sail with me than rig his own kite, worry about getting back to the boat, and finding a good place to launch.  Most places are sketchy. But if you stay in one place like these guys and you know the area and are addicted to the sport then it all makes sense.  Our MO is to keep moving on and seeing new places so finding the perfect spot is not so easy.  The next day we meet at the kiting place and I take off on my windsurfer after getting freaked about kiting, again.  My thought process goes like this:  If I were younger and could afford to crash and splash until I felt like it was riding a bike I’d be all in.  My body is showing many signs of a life well lived and played hard so I am trying to preserve what I still have left.  Windsurfing is my sport and I embrace it.  It may as the kiters say harder physically, but I’ve never felt like I could die if I screw up on a windsurfer or if someone makes a mistake and screws me up.  So there you have it.  I’m never going to be that lady out there kicking ass on a kite at 60. Who cares!  I know in my heart of hearts if I had started when I was 20 something I would be racing them and flying as high as the kite would carry me. So I brought my camera and snapped shots of others crushing it.  Kelly was learning and did a beautiful job of getting up and gliding – especially since she has hardly any feelings in her legs!

Instead of suffering through another humiliating day of trying to kite, I took off on my own and windsurfed to a little island called Rose Cay.  Bought a delightful drink made with fresh coconut juice and bought pearl earrings for me and my friends.  A young man was feeding his friend the sting ray just like in Grand Caymen but this time it was shallow and calm so easy to touch and enjoy the experience.

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That night we had a date at a restaurant called Club Nautico and it was wonderful!  The food was excellent and the ambience incredible.

The next day we walked around town.

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and that night we hung out with the other cruisers, most of who stay in St Andres for the kiting and community.  Someone organized a beer tasting field trip to a new brewery.  What was to be a short walk wound up being a group of gringos lost in the city with police guarding and escorting us.

Turns out the location took us though some less than desirable neighborhoods and the police did not want us getting hurt on their watch.

The Barracuda beer was good, the presentation great, and we all had a really good time.  I don’t even like beer. Hahah

 

The next day we made plans to sail further south.  Tom advised us to skip Panama.  Too many storms, lightening, and mildew at this time of year, and we planned to leave the boat for 6 months.  He said we’d return to a boat covered in mushrooms.  LOL. So much for visiting Boca De Toros and hauling at Shelter Bay Marina.  But I’d read about Cartagena and was excited.  And first we would stop in the San Blas Islands where it’s like walking into a National Geographic story.

Next blog, San Blas and Cartagena.

Viva Mexico!

The Passage to Mexico

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Tom Materna on helm, John Forgrave and Eric doing the bro thing

Day 1 passage to Mexico Notes:

Departed at 0700 on a beautiful day.  John  Forgrave brought a beautiful fishing rod as a gift  and the boys caught 2 Mahi Mahi’s, at the same time!

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Mahi Mahi’s are fast and abundant

Saw a dolphin pod that stayed awhile.  

Had to bring in the lines – too much Sargassum weed getting caught on the hooks.

2 fish is just fine.

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Weed fish everywhere

Hoping the lightening storms don’t return as last night was horrible.  

Shrimp and grits for dinner.  Made Banana Bread for tomorrow.  Pesto pasta for lunch. 

Nice evening with no storms. YAY!  In the summer months the storms become obnoxious. 

Day 2 – Most memorable thing – I made sushi for lunch and soon afterwards Tom and I got sick.

I had Mahi Zumas revenge but Tom had it coming out both ends. NOT a good thing for a long passage.

The funny thing was I served lasagna for dinner and Tom, AKA Walkie Talkie, was hungry so he ate a big helping and promptly hurdled off the stern.  Then he returned to the table and served himself up another plate!  OMG that man loves his food! 

The queasiness stayed with us and I was physically weak but alert and floated on watches to help navigate and cook, staying on deck curled up in the fetal position all night with Juan or Eric on helm.  Tom was toast so we left him off watch.  

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Heading into one of the worlds strongest currents

John finished his graveyard shift around 3 AM and informed Eric and me that a cruise ship was on AIS and headed our way (obviously leaving Mexico and going back towards the states).  BTW they look surreal at night, humongous and all lit up like a world of it’s own and one can only imagine how strange that would be if it were transported back in time – it would be straight out of a SciFi movie! As they got closer it was not as simple as heading up or down to avoid it.  On radar we detected a squall on our port quarter trying to overtake us, a large storm cell about 4 miles in front of us going port to starboard, and the Gulfstream current was pushing us sideways to starboard at 4 knots (into the ships path).  Working hard to stay out of their path we opted to put in 2 reefs just case a squall hit us at the most inopportune time – next to the cruise ship.  We wound up having only 1/2 mile between us.   Then we headed up and slowed down to let the big cell pass in front on us.  Our tracks had us doing circles in the stream.  The boat was headed one way and going another.  True vertigo.  If we had been pilots we might have crashed. That happens unfortunately.  You must trust your instruments and sometimes that’s really really hard.  It was bizarre and felt like an episode in The Twilight Zone.

But it worked and the cell not only passed in front of us but dissipated as well.  Whew!  This is why you never let your guard down while on watch.   Shit happens – mostly at night. 

Other cells were out there but nothing came close.  That was by far the weirdest situation we have ever encountered. 

 We tend to keep the boat on autopilot at night and when its calm and we are way offshore and not in a traffic zone we do a visual check every 5-10 minutes.  In more challenging conditions such as these, and in busy areas we are diligent in watching radar, AIS, and using our eyes and ears to keep a careful watch on things. One person awake and alert while on watch with the other(s) resting until their turn.  Depending on how many onboard (we prefer 3-4 for long passages so we can rest more) I’ll make a watch schedule and post it in the galley.  We cross off our names after our watch because after a day or two the time becomes a blur.  We need to look at that list often to know who is next and how long we can rest. Three hour watches has worked really well for us. Some people do 6 hour watches when it’s just the 2 of them but so far we haven’t tried that.  But when it’s just me and Eric we will let the other sleep in depending on how rested we are and how hard their watch was.

The stream continued to be strong at 4-5 knots and we used engines to keep the speed and go the right way.  Sometimes the difference between our heading and COG was 30 degrees. Like crabbing sideways.

Turns out that relatively narrow area between Cuba and Mexico is one of the strongest currents in the world. 

Arriving in Isla Mujeres around 13:00 we tied up at El Milagro Marina, a quaint marina with a tiny beach, a tiny pool, parrots, palm trees, a movie room with AC, internet (even from the dock), a community kitchen and dining area outside, and a community vibe including the staff that makes a good place great. 

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Marina manager with great efficiency.  Going through customs is expensive in IM because all the palms want to be greased. A lot.

The owner, Eric Schott who is actually a bit shy

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Awesome dude who escaped the USA and made a beautiful place out of nothing.

hails from Santa Barbara, CA, and after too many divorces he headed south and brought his mom too.

He built El Milagro 14 years ago and did it well.  All tiles, ambiance, happy employees and customers. We celebrated our anniversary with him and his crew and right before we departed he gave me and Eric a sweet compliment saying we were the coolest couple to ever stay at his marina.  He probably says this to all his easy customers.  LOL.

Thank you Cindy for sharing this marina info with us!  It was very special in a million ways!

Whale sharks are frequent visitors to this area of Mexico and Isla Mujeres has many tour boots that take tourists out to swim alongside them as they feed. We didn’t go for it.  The seas were building, it would be a 45 minute ride on an uncomfortable pong with other guests throwing up, and they throw you in the water while the whales swim by and you must wear a PFD.  WAY too touristy for us.  Hoping we find them in a much more natural setting and swim with them.

Amazing how much my dress matched this tile mural outside the marina!

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I put on a dress, walked outside, and matched!

Our crew hopped on provided Milagro bicycles and took off in search of scooters so we could tour the whole island.  It’s only 5 miles long.

Eric brought along El Gato stickers and placed them in strategic spots.

 IMG_4895We headed to the south end in the dark getting lost only once. A few days later we retuned to visit the area in the daylight.  It was spectacular. DSC_0015

Back to town for a delicious meal. Toms idea for ordering one meal at a time and everyone sharing, then the last meal something everyone agreed was the best to be ordered again was a hit.  To top off the meal some street performers demonstrated their skills doing acrobatics to the rhythms of drum beats.  Then one of the nicest voices we’d ever heard serenaded us.  It was lovely. The finish of the perfect dinner was vanilla ice cream topped with Kahlua. It was so popular with our group that we bought 2 bottles and filled a flask to bring to ice cream stores in the future!  

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Like most places called paradise, Isla Mujeres has changed a lot. My last visit in 1982 when I skippered an (almost) all female crew on a 54’ monohull called Huntress. We had one man, a journalist named Bob Payne who put the whole deal together. Bob wanted to get the perspective of being the only member of the opposite sex onboard. Back in those days it was hard to find a woman on any race boat let alone a boat full.  Since I had just raced in the SORC for my 2nd year as skipper of an all female team he was inspired.  Bob volunteered to be our cook, another role reversal, and promptly tried to learn how to cook.  It was a hoot, we lost weight, were first to finish, won the race, Sail Magazine published his story, and everyone celebrated yet another milestone for women sailing. It was a bonus that Isla Mujeres translates to Island of Women.  I was 23 at the time.  Looking back it seems I was a mere child who knew no boundaries. Invited by the Mayor of Cancun I stayed for the Mexican Windsurfing Nationals hosted at Club Med, and won the title but not the Windsurfer board that was the prize as they gave that to the first place Mexican as they should. I did however receive a really cool trophy to add to the collection of Isla Mujeres trophies. They take great pride in their prize givings and some of the trophies were gorgeous.   The Nationals were really fun until the mayor practically kidnapped me.  That’s another story. I was scared and locked myself up in my room at Club Med.  I wrote letters back home just in case I disappeared. 

Meanwhile Huntress sailed back to Florida and her keel almost fell off.  I guess we were all lucky to survive that week.  

Anyway, after the guys departed, Eric and I rested a lot and returned to almost normal sleeping patterns.  It’s tricky to sleep all night after being alert for so long and also being in a new place with new sounds.

Different restaurants every night as we can never get our fill of  good Mexican food!  

On Hidalgo Street we found El Patio with live music so we did the “white man dancing” routine.  This is what I call Eric’s moves.  LOL. I love that he does not care what he does or looks like – he loves to bust out his moves with pure abandon – the same ones he learned in junior high.  The music was great and before long the dance floor was full.  Sorry, no photos. 

Day after day we waited for a weather window but it never opened.  The forecast called for 30 knots around Nicaragua and the seas were building.

So we made a new plan.

One that would avoid pirates and weather.

We hoped.

That’s in the next blog, coming soon!