It’s dark, and though the stars are getting brighter, they’re losing the battle to the silver moon that is now shining over Happy Dance. A gentle wind is blowing from the north and I’m standing on the bow, letting the breeze cool me, listening to the birds, and smelling the plumeria blossoms on shore. I’m picturing a map in my mind, trying to reconcile where we are with where we’ve been, and with the distance traveled from that arbitrary place we once called home.
Six years ago, we untied Happy Dance from the dock in Anacortes and motored out of the marina to begin an adventure that neither of us clearly envisioned. How little we grasped of the things we’d see, the places we’d visit, the people we’d meet, and the fears we’d face. We chuckle now at the funny things we did while learning to live on a sailboat, and we cringe at the scary things we did that we survived.
So here we are in Panama, in the Pearl Islands, latitude 07 degrees, longitude 79 degrees, with over 15,000 miles under the keel from the glaciers in Alaska! Who’d a thunk it. All the miles, the smiles, the oohs and ahhs, the pinch me moments, the oh shit moments, and the bazillion memories in between. What a ride!
In honor of our sixth anniversary of cruising, I thought this blog would be about reminiscing over some of our more memorable moments. But when I asked Marty to name his top three moments since leaving the dock he started writing, and writing, and writing, and finally stopped after he’d listed a page full, saying “I can’t!”. I have to agree though, it’s impossible to decide the best of the best of all the magical moments we’ve shared. So, I’ll scrap that blog, or save it for another major milestone and move on to something that’s been in our minds this year…
This season has been tough. The distance from family and friends seemed farther even though we’re usually just a plane ride away. Lack of communication from home has hurt more this year and when faced with a real emergency the timing couldn’t have been worse when we needed for Marty to get home quickly to see his Dad who was ailing. Weather, logistics, and immigration paperwork all played against us as we frantically worked to get Marty on a plane out of Playas de Coco, Costa Rica. It didn’t help that it was during the Christmas holidays and offices were on short hours, or that the winds were blowing 40 knots in the anchorage and yet we were forced to keep Happy Dance in the harbor until papers were completed. Marty was finally able to fly out, and I stayed on Happy Dance at anchor. Thankfully Marty was able to see his Dad before he passed away on Christmas Day. So yes, that was tough.
In addition to the family sadness, we’ve had a few sailing trials as well. Our last passage around Punta Mala to Las Perlas was essentially the final straw in what has become the year of the broken-backed camel. On the Happy Dance Beaufort Duck Scale, it was a five-ducks-down-100-mile-trek against contrary currents, tide rips that spread out for miles, howling winds stirring up steep waves, all while playing dodge-a-freighter in the dark. We were traveling at less than 4 knots, and sometimes painfully slowed to 2 and 3 knots by the ferocious current running out of the Gulf of Panama. We actually considered diving on the prop to see if we’d caught a fishing net or something! Happy Dance was not happy! The slow speed was annoying but bearable, except for the fact that Happy Dance was guzzling fuel like a motorboat. Then at sunset, the winds kicked in. We unfurled the mainsail, but soon had to reef and finally furled it all the way back in because the conditions were just too rough. With Happy Dance nearly dipping her gunwales in the water with every roll, we tried and tried to no avail to find an easier heading to find some relief from the gusty wind and opposing current.
Then we arrived at the edge of the busy shipping lanes leading into the Panama Canal. When you’re only going 3 knots over ground, and the freighters are moving at about 20 knots, it’s best to stay out of their way. Unfortunately for us, that meant trying to get across the southbound lane into the separation zone in time to avoid the freighter bearing down on us, and give the freighter heading northbound some room to pass us. Judging speed, bearing, and distance is a crazy game when the Closest Point of Approach (CPA) on radar is changing from 500 feet to 2 miles with every roll of the boat because your GPS is 55’ off the water.
So, long story short, we survived another passage from hell. I have this one listed in second place after the true passage from hell, but Marty thought it might be down further on the list. Either way, we’d just as soon not repeat the experience any time soon!
Once dawn arrived, we could see the islands, the current finally released us from its grasp, and a pod of dolphins escorted us the last few miles. Happy Dance picked up speed and started behaving normally again, and we were soon approaching shore, watching the depth sounder waiting for a spot to anchor. Too tired even for an anchor beer, we took a look at our beautiful new surroundings, then hit the sack. Nap time.
Now…back to that gentle wind blowing, standing on the bow, letting the breeze cool me, listening to the colorful birds call to each other on shore. There were many days of simply watching; gazillions of sea birds diving, fish kerfluffles, beaches appearing and disappearing in the 18’ tides. Walks on the beaches, paddles along the reefs, swimming and floating, happy hours on the sand. Yeah, it was nice.
Then why are we feeling so ambivalent about being in Panama after having spent nearly two years in getting here? As a cruiser it’s a scary thing to admit that you’re just a wee bit tired. Another beach, another sunset, ho hum? How is that possible? I think we’re spoiled by places we’ve been and loved more, and that didn’t require getting the poopie knocked out of us on a regular basis!
El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama are all beautiful countries, with different personalities, different traditions, and different people. We appreciated them all, we’ve been awed by the history and the beauty, we’ve been amazed at the flora and fauna. There are still so many places to explore that I know we’ll be back, however, the trip south (and lots of east) from El Salvador was much tougher than expected. The infamous Papagayo winds, the marginal road stead anchorages, the days and days of dancing on anchor in 40-50 knots, the high cost of living, and the added difficulty in getting simple conveniences, like tacos…I miss tacos. And tamales. And mole, margaritas, and molcajete.
We’re returning to the land of tamales. To the land where Spanish music spills out from every doorway and the mouthwatering smells from the roticeria will make your tummy rumble. There are many whys and wherefores for this decision, and in our wee brains we probably have a list of reasons stored somewhere, but mostly it’s about feeling relaxed, feeling safe, and feeling happy. Rather than wonder why I’m not feeling those things here in this particular slice of paradise, I’m more focused on the reasons I felt those emotions in Mexico.
The Gulf of California is magical, and it’s our kind of magic. When we return to Happy Dance next season, we’ll be making the big U-turn and heading north. Not in the sense of going backwards, but in the sense of going home. We’re glad to have seen and experienced Central America even on a small scale, and now it’s time to return to the places that we have enjoyed the most. A part of me feels like we’re failing the adventure, that we’re giving up on reaching further, but there is another part of me that says, to hell with expectations; my own or the perceived ones that we think others place on us.
Our life is an escapade and we are happy and proud to be living it to the fullest. We set out six years ago not knowing what adventures were in store for us, and we’ve had more incredible encounters than we can list. Our lives are measured in moments, in glances and a smile, in a hug on a bumpy sea, a toast to a conch shell sunset, watching for the green flash, a Norah Jones serenade. We’ll continue to chase sunsets, no matter which direction they lead us, and we’ll always be together in that space and time we call home.