Hurry Up and Wait…the rest of the story…pandemic passages

We crept into Boca Chica, Panama, at low tide, with a few feet to spare under the keel.  Compared with our last visit, it felt like a ghost town.  Gone were the cruising boats anchored amidst the tourist and fishing pangas zooming by.  This time the anchorage was nearly empty, and the only sounds were the howler monkeys on shore.  It felt a little eerie!

We anchored as far from the channel and it’s whirling tidal currents as possible, not wanting to risk going under the 60’ high power lines with our 57′ vertical clearance.  This is the same harbor where we hooked a huge waterlogged tree on our anchor, so we carefully avoided that area.  Once anchored we contacted another cruiser who had anchored past the electrical wires to get the scoop on what was happening in Boca Chica (nothing), and what was the latest on getting an exit Zarpe (no luck).  So, it was time to hunker down and wait once again.

Propane Procurement Problems

Needing propane and diesel, we arranged for a water taxi to take our tanks to a land taxi driver who would drive them to town and bring them all back full.  It sounded like such an easy process!  Who am I kidding; this is Panama, and worse it’s Panama under a pandemic.  In addition to restricting travel by the last number on your ID, Panama has also stipulated gender restrictions for an hour of shopping and a strict curfew requiring everyone to be home by 5pm each day, with no travel at all on Sundays.

On the first day of the great propane procurement plan, it was a day designated for female travel only.  Since it was ladies’ day, our male taxi driver was stopped at a roadblock and forced to turn around.  Day two, he tried again, and got as far as the propane refueling station.  Unfortunately, the worker there said our tanks were full and he couldn’t fill them.  Huh?  So that took another day to say just open the valve and release whatever pressure is there and refill them because we knew they were empty!  Day three, lady’s day again, no men can travel.  Day four, voila, the land taxi can travel, the workers somehow filled them, and the water taxi brought them back at sunset on a slack tide.  We ended up paying for each taxi attempt, and an extra “service charge”, but hey, it was nice to be able to cook again and have morning coffee!  Ah, hurry up and wait, and wait…

Zany Zarpe Zoo

Now that we had fuel and propane it was time to turn our focus back to that elusive endangered species; the Exit Zarpe.  We soon found ourselves in a giant catch-22 of total insanity.  There are three officials that are normally required to enter and clear a country; Immigration, Maritime Authority (AMP), and Customs.  In addition to those, there is now a Ministry of Health (MINSA) requirement because of Covid-19.

Our problems stemmed from the fact that MINSA wouldn’t issue us a health clearance because we were leaving the country.  If we’d been entering the country, a MINSA official would have come to us and cleared us in.  However, since MINSA wouldn’t give us the health clearance, Immigration wouldn’t stamp our passports, and without the passport stamps, AMP wouldn’t issue the Zarpe, and without the Zarpe, Customs wasn’t going to clear us.  Soooooo, very VERY long story short, we went around and around with numerous officials, phone calls, emails, embassy calls, etc., etc. with no luck.  Even though the MINSA clearance was not required to exit, La Hefa at the Immigration office was not going to budge.

After two weeks of this insanity we finally hired an agent to do the calling and arranging for us.  As Carlos said; “if you can’t go straight, go crooked”.  Funny, it seems that money talks!  Immediately the agent had a plan; he arranged for us to go to a MINSA health examination clinic and get the health clearance ourselves, since the official refused to come to us.  Easy peasy, right?  We got up at dawn, got a water taxi to take us to a land taxi, drove on back roads in the land taxi to avoid getting stopped by the police since we weren’t allowed out, and finally arrived at the health clinic.  After much talking back and forth, and more phone calls, we were told by the workers at the clinic they couldn’t give us a clearance but that if we said we’d never been there, and promised not to leave our boats again, they would email a clearance to us!  Ah, the logic of Panamanian government authorities.

We reversed our trip, avoiding the police on the road, hiding out in the water taxi when the Navy got too close, feeling a bit let down and wondering if we’d ever see the health inspection email.  Back on Happy Dance, we resumed waiting.  But low and behold, after a few hours we had an email with our health certificate!  We sent it on to our agent, but since the other offices were now closed, he would go in the morning.  Okay, what’s another day?  We’re getting good at this waiting stuff!

The next day our agent started at 7am on his way to David and made it to Immigration without a problem.  Next stop was the Maritime Authority in Pedrigal, and he soon had our Zarpe in hand!  The final stop was at Customs for another stamp and of course another fee.  Sometime around 1pm the agent was finally on his way back, and then of course he was stopped by the police at a roadblock.  We’re not really sure what went on or why it took so long, but he was able to get through the road block and arrived back to the marina at around 4pm.  We emailed the agent his $600 dollar fee and the long insane wait for the elusive Exit Zarpe was nearly over.

As soon as Carlos delivered the papers to our friend Nora, who was anchored beyond those low hanging wires I mentioned, she decided to make an attempt to get past the wires so that she’d be ready to depart in the morning.  It was nearly low tide, but the tide was still coming in against her at a fast clip, making it difficult to maintain speed and steerage and she was in danger of going aground.  Carlos tried to help her maintain steerage by tying a line to her bow to steer her bow into the channel with his panga.  Well, another long story short, the current won the battle and both boats were in trouble.  The panga got swamped, the line was under the sailboat, the sailboat had to turn around, and they both headed back to where they started with a bit more stress added to the day.

This of course delayed us as well, because now Carlos couldn’t bring us our papers because his panga was full of water, his phone was drowned, his engine was full of saltwater, and he was not happy.  Eventually he got sorted out, dried out, and low and behold, here comes Carlos zooming to Happy Dance with our all-important papers.  Yeehaw!  We did a drive by grab, exchanging paperwork and passports for a bag of trash (poetic?), and we pulled anchor.  We had just enough time to leave Boca Chica and head out to a favorite anchorage before maritime sunset.

It was lovely dropping anchor (in the dark) in an empty anchorage off Isla Parida.  No more cell calls, text messages, or bad news, just parrots squawking in the trees and waves crashing on the rocks.  A nicer venue for that wonderful activity of waiting.

Lightning Litany

We spent two nights relaxing and swimming in beautiful Parida while we waited for our friend Nora to make her way under the wires at low tide and out of Boca Chica.  Along the way she realized that her auto pilot wasn’t working, and that was a big problem considering that she was single handing and planning a long passage straight to Mexico!  Thankfully she is very savvy and took the auto pilot apart, to determine the problem.  With some help from Carlos they soon had the unit back together and working.

Once we heard via VHF that she would soon be on her way we agreed to have her meet up with us in the next anchorage called Punta Balsa.  This is the last stop on the northwest corner of Panama before heading into Costa Rica.  Since the border in Costa Rica was closed, we planned on making an overnight run from there and trying to anchor in a secluded anchorage that hopefully the Navy or the GuardaCostas wouldn’t be guarding.

Waking at dawn to the sound of thunder isn’t my idea of a good time.  The dark clouds were massed over the point to the northwest, and a procession of thunderheads stretched out to sea in a threatening line that we would have to cross.  As we pulled anchor, I watched the bolts of lightning hit and counted off the seconds until I heard the thunder.  Miles away, but still too close!  The anchor was finally stowed, and we peeled out of the anchorage trying to leave the lightning show behind us.

As daylight brightened, the clouds dispersed a bit leaving a lumpy sea for us to maneuver around the point.  Then it was time for sails out, engine off and a lovely sail up the coast along the rainforest toward the huge Gulf of Nicoya.

All was well until about midnight.  Marty was on watch and the radar started showing bands of thunderclouds off to starboard toward land.  Unfortunately, they were also ahead of us, and we were soon engulfed in lightning and rain.  (Here’s a story about why lightning scares me so much!!) At this point he could see Nora’s boat on the radar but as he watched, another band of clouds slowly moved around in a hook and absorbed her.  She called in reporting driving rain, 30 knot winds, and lightning.

Pretty soon we were both swallowed up in the clouds that had now connected to form a huge blob on the radar with nowhere to run.  Marty decided that heading toward the mainland to get out of the storm was the best idea and shortest distance through the storm.  We got Nora’s position via VHF and recorded it on our chart before making a turn so that we didn’t run her over since we couldn’t see anything but storm clouds on the radar and visibility was zero due to the rain.

After a long night at the helm, hanging on in gusty winds, driving rain, and scary lightning, Marty took a much needed break (my hero!!) and I stood watch impatiently waiting for sunrise.  We had altered course and we were now heading toward a tiny anchorage called Bahia Dominicalito. Our charting software described this as a decent anchorage with good holding.  We arrived to find a huge swell crashing over the protective reef; time to move on!

Our next stop was in the southern anchorage of Manual Antonio National Park, a protected area of rugged rainforest, white-sand beaches and coral reefs.  We made our way through the rocks to a slightly protected spot where we were soon anchored.  Nap time!

GuardaCostas Gratitude

We were awoken a few hours later to the sound of large engines outside the boat.  As we crawled blurry eyed and stumble footed out the companionway, we were greeted by a Costa Rican GuardaCostas boat trying valiantly to maintain position next to us in what was now a very lumpy sea.  While we’d slept it appeared that the storm we’d been running from overnight had now arrived on shore and we were in the middle of it.  Our calm anchorage had turned into a nasty lee shore.

We handed our papers and passports across to the GuardaCostas and were told to wait while they checked them out. They asked lots of questions about our health and our intentions.  Since Costa Rica borders were closed, we were anchored illegally, so we hoped that they didn’t boot us out and would let us stay until the following morning.

While they were making phone calls and trying to decide what to do with us, the rain started pouring down and the wind picked up.  Their boat was open, so they were soon drenched, as were we, because they ordered us to pull anchor and follow them.  Huh? We had no idea where we were going or why we needed to follow them, but since they had our passports, we decided it was probably a good idea!

We have a 75hp engine on Happy Dance, but even so, getting out of that anchorage was a challenge.  We had to drive straight into the heavy swell because of the rocks guarding the entrance.  At times we were being launched off the waves into troughs that would slow Happy Dance down to just a couple knots.  Nora was behind us and with her smaller engine her boat was having trouble at times maintaining steerage.  It took a good half an hour to get past the rocks where we could finally alter course to take the waves at a better angle.  It was still pouring rain though, so that we could hardly see the GuardaCostas boat in the distance.  Since we still didn’t know where they were taking us, we didn’t want to lose sight of them as we navigated around the rocks and reefs in the area.

Pretty soon we realized the Coasties were leading us to the northern anchorage of Manual Antonio Park, which was a much more protected spot than where we’d been.  They spent more time making phone calls and asking questions, but pretty soon they came over and told us we were allowed to stay, but we were not allowed to go ashore.  Perfect!  Muchas gracias!!!

Needless to say, we slept well that night.

The next day we made a short hop to Bahia Ballena, one of our favorite spots.  Nora decided to do another overnighter to put the thunderstorms brewing over the rainforest on the Nicoya Peninsula behind her, so we bid her adios knowing we’d catch up with her further north.  The clouds started hovering over us at sunset, but nothing much developed, and we had an easy night along with another easy day of travel around the peninsula up to Bahia Samara.

Even though the day had been sunny and clear, and we’d enjoyed a gentle sail on smooth seas watching hundreds of mobula rays put on a leaping show, everything changed about 30 minutes after we set anchor in Samara.  The clouds stacked up over the bay and pretty soon the rain came down.  Three free boat washes in as many days…Happy Dance was so clean!!

Dripping Dripless

While in Samara Marty was finally able to determine why our bilge pump had been running.  Happy Dance is a very dry boat, so when the bilge pump goes off, we both sit up and take notice.  We’d thought it was simply the refrigerator draining from the high humidity, but Marty did more digging and discovered that the dripless prop shaft seal was dripping at a pretty steady rate.  Salt water inside is not my idea of fun.  Rutro!!!

Thankfully we had internet in Samara so we could do some research and ask cruiser friends for information.  Pretty soon we’d learned that our dripping dripless would need to be replaced, which means that we’d have to pull out the propeller shaft in order to put on the new shaft seal.  Obviously it’s not a task that can be done in the water.  The next haul out open to us (since we couldn’t enter Costa Rica) was in Chiapas, Mexico, still 400 miles away.

Marty was able to slow the leak with grease and then wrapped it while we were at anchor.  We decided to wait in Samara a couple days while another boating friend caught up to us so that we’d at least have a boat within hailing distance in case the leak got worse while we were under way.  Pretty soon we were on our way again with planned overnight stops in Playa Conchal, Costa Rica (where we’d seen the yellow-bellied sea snakes on our way down the coast), and Pie de Gigante, Nicaragua.  Thankfully the grease that Marty had put in the seal seemed to be keeping the sea water out even while we were under way – yay!

We’d hoped to put into one more anchorage at El Transito, so that we didn’t have to do another night passage, but with the extreme swells the coast had been having, the anchorage was untenable.  We couldn’t even get close to the beach because of the huge rollers running straight in.  We altered course yet again, put Happy Dance into a slow motor into the wind while we both went on deck to add more fuel to the tanks from the jerry jugs on deck.  Once the fueling was done we set a course for Puesta del Sol, and motored all night at a butt numbingly slow 4 knots so that we’d arrive at dawn.

Nicaraguan Negation

The entrance to Marina Puesta del Sol is via a shallow estuary channel that ebbs and floods with the tide.  Our intent had been to arrive at high slack tide which on this day was at 4pm.  So of course, we arrived at dawn, 10 hours early, as the tide was still going out, with about two hours until low slack.  When you have a large swell entering a shallow channel against an outgoing tidal current, it’s generally a good time to anchor and wait it out.

Hmmm…We decided to give it a try.

Our first attempt was a little dicey as we followed the waypoints that were listed on the marina information in Navionics.  When suddenly we were doing 10 knots surfing down a large swell, we quickly did a 180 back to deeper water to rethink our approach.  We decided the better angle would be a straight in approach with a quick 90 degree turn into the entrance closer to the small peninsula that guarded the channel.

Our second attempt was an easier approach to the entrance, but it was still a bit “lively”.  The outgoing tide and resulting chop slowed us down to around three knots for a short section along the beach.  With breakers on one side and rocks on the other, there wasn’t much of a choice but to keep upping the RPMs until we were through into the estuary.  Once past the entrance we could relax and simply keep an eye on the depth sounder and the channel markers.

Soon we were tied to a dock, and trying to get our land legs under us.  It felt wonderful after 32 days of being on Happy Dance!  We recognized some of the boats in the marina, so it was nice to get caught up and to get Happy Dance ready to stay put for a while.  With the tarp over the boom to make shade, the chairs in the cockpit, and the boat tied up we were ready for some relaxation!

The health inspector came out and announced us clear of Covid19 (are you sick? No..).  All was great, we’re relaxing, waiting for the Immigration official and the Port Captain.  But then, the Navy arrived…is that the theme from Jaws I hear?

It seemed that the previous week the Nicaraguan border was closed unofficially, but they forgot to tell everyone until the day we arrived.  So, we were the last boats into the marina, and now they were saying we had to leave; Nicaragua was closed.  This was all taking place after we’d spent weeks talking with the marina, forwarding our documents and keeping them informed on our arrival date.

Robert, the owner of Puesta del Sol Marina, is well connected and he got on the phone to call the President of Nicaragua, and the Head of the Navy, and we were given a short reprieve. They had us move off the main dock to another empty dock, where we were not allowed to leave the boat.  A Navy boat was stationed right next to us to make sure we stayed on board.  We were told that the next day another health inspector would come give us a more thorough exam to see if we were healthy.  If we passed that health inspection, then the rest of the process would begin again.

The next day, as we were sitting onboard filling out the papers to check into the marina and waiting for the health inspector, we were told that the marina and the Navy would let us stay for a few days illegally; as if we weren’t in the country.  But then, that familiar theme music started up again…and the manager received a phone call from Immigration saying that we would not be allowed to stay.  Robert got on the phone again trying to use his influence to get another reprieve, but Immigration was a tougher nut to crack and they wouldn’t budge. We were told we had to leave, and we had to leave that day regardless of conditions at sea.

At high tide that afternoon we refueled and headed back out the channel, with a three-day passage in front of us.  The forecast showed the possibility of some thunderstorms, with light winds on our nose and a long low swell.  A stiff wind was blowing onshore as we headed straight out past the breakers and the reefs, but we were soon able to set a course with a reefed main and jib out and sailed until sunset in a lumpy sea doing only about 4.5 knots.  When you’re looking at a 340-mile run, 4.5 knots feels very slow!

The wind eventually died down as darkness crept in and the rest of the trip was an easy one.  We enjoyed lots of dolphin encounters, turtles and burtles, rays jumping, and a red sun peeking through the hazy skies at sunrise and sunset.  The seas smoothed out, the thunder bumpers stayed far away, we were able to increase speed, and we arrived at the entrance to Chiapas, Mexico at dawn on the third morning.  We gently rode the swell past the breakwater, and maneuvered down the channel into the flat water of the marina.  Listening to the morning bird calls all around, we backed into a slip, tied up, and heaved a huge sigh of relief.

One of the marina guys came over to take our temperature and advise that the Port Captain and the Navy would be by shortly.  We passed those two rounds of paperwork, then it was time for coffee and oh, maybe just a short nap…ha!  Since it was Sunday, we couldn’t check in to the country until the next day anyway.

The quick story of a long day of driving, waiting, driving, waiting, is that on Monday, Marty did the paperwork cha cha with four different officials, plenty of stamps on documents, and a great sprinkling of pesos.  When he got back to Happy Dance, we did the happy dance, toasted our happy life with a Negra Modelo, and celebrated our official entry into Mexico!!!!

Twelve hundred miles, thirty six boat days, sixteen bolts of lightning, four closed borders, and a dripping dripless shaft seal (sing along!!)….yep, this living the dream can be quite an adventure!!

 

Hurry Up and Wait…pandemic passages

But I get ahead of myself again.  I intended to tell you how we arrived here, so off we go!

We’ve just reached another milestone for Happy Dance and her crew!  Seven years ago, we left the dock in Anacortes, Washington, setting sail for adventure and what an adventure it’s been.  Our first stop on that momentous Bon Voyage day was a favorite spot of ours on Lopez Island.  Today we’re floating at anchor in a new favorite called Bahia de Rosario, surrounded by black sand beaches, lush green forests, pelicans in trees, squawking parrots, and howler monkeys.  What a difference over fifteen thousand miles makes!

Along the way we’ve learned that sometimes leaving the dock is a simple affair, and sometimes it’s a bit more complicated, due to rough weather, opposing tides, mechanical problems, or just not being ready.  The thing that held us to the dock in Panama for two very expensive weeks was a new thing to all of us called the Coronavirus Pandemic.  Obviously, we’re not the only ones negatively impacted by the uncertainty of the world these days, and I hardly feel like our inconveniences are worthy of mention given what people are facing around the world.  Our problems have stemmed from border closings, travel restrictions, services being unavailable, and basically just learning to wait. 

It seems as though our timing has been off since our arrival into Panama.  We had scheduled our arrival based on information from one marina employee stating the tide would be high enough to launch Happy Dance, however it was a different story when we were standing in front of the person who would actually be doing the launching!  Long story short, we were not able to launch as planned and headed off to find a hotel while we waited for higher tides.

Four days later we launched with a couple of feet to spare, thankfully avoiding bouncing on the bottom or hitting any of the other obstacles in this less than perfect marina!  Once at the dock we worked through “the List” of chores pretty fast, then had to wait, and wait, for the daily March winds to calm a bit to be able to hoist the sails.

Happy Dance waiting to be launched

Finally, we were ready to go.  Wrong!  The virus had arrived in Panama and Panama had closed the doors.  The Panamanian President decreed that marine officials would not be in their offices ready to stamp papers and give us the magic exit Zarpe which we need to be able to leave the country.  The news continued to deteriorate as it did all over the world, with stores closing, buses and taxis not running, roadblocks between us and the Port offices, and a curfew imposed from 5pm to 5am.  For us it just meant that we had hurried up and now must wait, wait, wait, to see what decree came next and when we might be able to leave Panama.  Three weeks later we’re still waiting.

We heard some good news that we at least we wouldn’t be stopped from leaving the marina, so we motored Happy Dance to the fuel dock before 8am to be ready when they opened, and they finally showed up at 11am to fuel us.  Okay, NOW we’re off!  As we left the marina at noon it was a bit nerve wracking to see one of our fellow cruisers anchored just outside the break water being buffeted by the wind and waves because the marina wasn’t letting any boats enter.  In other words, once we crossed the breakwater, we were outcasts.  No worries…right?  Gulp!

Well, nothing ventured nothing gained.  The afternoon winds had kicked up, so we rolled out the genoa and had a lovely lively sail heading due south out of Panama Bay.  The wind was strong enough that even with a double reefed genoa out, we were making tracks.  Needless to say, it was fantastic after having been in the marina for so long, being blown against the dock and bouncing on the surge, to finally put a use to all that wind!  What a great sail.  Happy Dance and her crew were all doing the happy dance!

It seemed strange to be sailing south to get north, but we were heading toward Punta Malo, with the sun setting to starboard.  Thankfully Punta Malo wasn’t malo (bad) as we rounded the notoriously rough point, and we were then able to change course to due West.  As the daily winds subsided with a moonless dark night coming on, we furled the sails and motored to first light enjoying the phosphorus light show in our wake.  In the morning we hoisted the sails again making plenty of sail changes in the offshore gusty winds, completing the 150-mile passage in 24 hours.  We arrived at Ensenada de Naranjo on Isla Cebaco mid-day the next day, and as we rounded the point into the bay we were greeted by the wonderful fragrance of flowering trees.   

It had been a dark bumpy night for the first overnight transit, and we were both tired but happy when the anchor dropped.  We spent the next couple days cleaning up from a rough passage (one duck down), swimming off the boat, enjoying the gentle roll of the boat on the incoming swells, and listening to the rollers crash onshore.   It felt awesome to be away from the dock and get reacquainted with the feeling of the boat under us.  There’s nothing like sleeping at anchor; we love it.

Our next stop was at an anchorage tucked between the mainland and Isla Catalina, where we spent two days catching up on the news (mostly bad) via a cell tower that we know can be reached there.  It’s not the best anchorage because the swells break over the reefs at high tide making it a bit rough, but it calmed down at night, so we still enjoyed peaceful sleep. 

It’s now been over a week since we left the dock and we’re feeling like boat people again!  Happy Dance is anchored in a lovely spot called Bahia de Rosario, on the mainland of Panama about midway between the Choiba and Seca Island groups, with light winds and tides so that she is barely pulling on her anchor chain.  We hadn’t stayed here before and we’re so glad that we did this time.  It’s a fairly well protected anchorage, with small islands and a reef that stops the swell from entering the bay.  There hasn’t been much wind to speak of during the week we’ve been here, so the variable onshore and offshore breezes have been just enough to keep us cool and give us a 360-degree view of the bay.

There are no houses or people nearby, so other than the few fishing cayucas who paddle in from the next bay over where there’s a little fishing village perched on the sand, we haven’t seen anyone.  It’s about a two-mile paddle to get here, so the fishermen arrive before the sun on the incoming tide and point their boats home when the sun is high and the tide is going out. 

Sunrise and sunset are heralded by the sound of howler monkeys calling to each other from deep in the lush forest.  We read somewhere that howler monkeys are one of the loudest animals on the planet and if you’ve ever heard them it’s not hard to think they’re probably the loudest!  We haven’t been able to see their black bodies in the depths of the shadows, but we can see their passage as the tree branches dip under their weight.  It’s a riot to listen to them, along with the many bird calls and fish kerfluffles…pretty awesome.

One side of this idyllic bay where we’re anchored is ringed with plumeria trees, mostly bare branches with bunches of fragrant white plumeria blossoms at the end of each.  The trees are very accommodating for the flocks of white ibis who unknowingly camouflage themselves among the white flowers.  There are also a few great egrets who come home to roost every night, along with the silly pelicans who enjoy making me laugh.  In the morning the ibis all take flight at once leaving one to think that all the clusters of flowers were suddenly blown away.

This week of solitude and serenity has been a welcome gift for two sailors who prefer quiet anchorages over busy marinas.  Especially after all the bad news and frustrations out in the big world it’s been unbelievable to simple sit on the boat and listen to the sounds of nature and the sea all around us.  We’ve been swimming, paddling, beach walking, and just enjoying this beautiful spot.  We’ll soon go face the news again, since we need to find out if Panama will ever give us our magic Exit Zarpe and let us go on about our travels.  No doubt there are more weeks of waiting in our future, but we’ll find more little anchorages to spend the time and hopefully we’ll be soon moving again; enjoying more of this unpredictable adventure that we began seven years ago!

Update:

We’re now anchored in Boca Chica, where we have cell service and can find out what’s what in the world.  We were welcomed into the bay by a school of dolphins.  We’re sending lots of love to family and friends, wishing you all a happy lock down!  

On the Hard

Sitting here cooling off in the breeze, enjoying a view of ducks on the pond, listening to birds chirping, cottonwood leaves rustling, goat bells tinkling in the distance, our resident rooster crowing at his harem of hens, all mixed in with the sound of motorcycles shifting through their gears, and small airplanes circling to land in the field nearby.  It’s certainly a different type of life style that we’ve been having this summer!  It’s life on the hard! 

Where are we now?  Glad you asked!

At the moment we’re house sitting in a lovely peaceful home just outside Snohomish, with trees all around and a pond in back.  We always seem to have good luck and once again lady luck came through.  While we were sailing in Panama last February, we met some new cruising friends who were vacationing for a week on another friend’s boat.  Long story short, we discovered during sundowner conversations that they needed a house sitter while they were sailing in Alaska for the summer, and we needed a place to stay while I recuperated from knee replacement surgery (I think they got the best end of the deal..ha!).  Voila – conundrums solved cooperatively!

So, this summer has now marked the longest stint we’ve spent on the hard, and in one place, since we moved onto our floating home in 2012.  It’s been a bit out of character for us and we’re definitely getting eager to start traveling again, but what a great summer we’ve had in the beautiful Northwest.  My knee surgery was a total success and being in such a perfect surrounding to recover could not have been better.

How did we get here?  Glad you asked!

The first thing that happened was that Happy Dance was lifted from her happy place in the water and placed on the hard.  That very simple sentence doesn’t even remotely reflect the level of angst and anxiety we felt as we slowly guided Happy Dance onto the submerged hydraulic trailer then watched somewhat helplessly while the workers aligned her 7’ keel in between the hydraulic lift pads that would support her 25,000 lbs. as she was hauled to her summer home on blocks.  With plenty of shifting, do-overs, and shouted instructions between the driver and the guys with their snorkel gear peering into the murky water to see if all was well, they soon had her on the trailer and began the slow pull up the steep (much too steep) ramp to her new home in dry storage where she’d sit on blocks for the next eight months.  Now we just have to worry about the return trip!

Marty and I are also out of our floating element; we’re living on the hard just like Happy Dance, in a real house with wooden walls, a rigid roof, and even a truck for transportation in the driveway.  It doesn’t rock when the wind blows, we don’t have to take the dinghy to get to the store, and there are no worries about anchors dragging, but we do miss our pool!  It’s all so…normal…but very abnormal for these two sailors.

Where else have you been?  Glad you asked!

We enjoyed some land yacht adventures before we landed in Snohomish.  In May after Happy Dance was secure, we flew from Panama City to Pueblo, Colorado and picked up Murph, our 18’ travel trailer.  For a month or so we drove around exploring new places in the southwest.  Two of the most memorable adventures were Mesa Verde National Park, and Arches National Park.  Wow!

It felt like we had Mesa Verde NP all to ourselves and because it was technically before the season had opened, we pretty much did!  We pulled into the park campground and found a perfect spot with a beautiful view of the mesas.  It was still pretty cold there, with even a few patches of snow hidden beneath the trees, but the sun came out and warmed things up in the daytime.  We hiked every day to a new vista or cliff dwelling, rode our bikes around the Wetherill Mesa, oohed and aahed at all the ancient pueblo structures, and thoroughly enjoyed reading every plaque and adding archeological factoids to our craniums.

One of our favorite hikes was the Petroglyph Trail, that leads you down into a steep canyon and below the cliffs.  It was impressive to look up at the enormous sandstone cliffs and to walk along trails that the ancestral people had formed all those hundreds of years ago in their travels from the canyons to mesa tops.  The Petroglyphs themselves were amazing, spectacular, mind blowing; such a small speck in a hidden canyon brimming with forgotten memories.  You could almost feel the grit on the artist’s fingers as he carved his stories into the rock walls.  After trying to absorb it all, we eventually returned to the trail that now took us up, straight up, to the top of the canyon for the loop back to where we started.  Perfect!

After enjoying plenty of solitude and communing with history for a week our next stop was Moab, Utah and Arches National Park.  We soon learned that Moab is never out of season!  The town itself was busy, but not yet overflowing with summer traffic.  The biggest hurdle was finding a place to camp, but as our good luck would have it, we happened to drive into one of the BLM campgrounds just as another camper was leaving, so we were able to grab a prime spot right on the Colorado River.  The campgrounds are mostly first come first serve, so campers are forced to drive around every day to see when others are leaving so that they can be there bright and early to try and grab a spot.  It’s a crazy game, and we were so happy to have found a spot so easily.

As is our usual routine in busy National Parks, we were up at the crack of dawn each day and headed into Arches.  We beat the crowds at the gate and enjoyed peaceful drives into the park through some pretty spectacular scenery!  I must have said WOW a gazillion times.  Every corner and slight change in elevation brought new views of the crazy shaped spires and arches unlike anything we’d ever seen.  The guide says there are over 2,000 arches in the park, and it’s easy to believe as you see how the wind and rain shapes the stone.

We went to a different spot each day and hiked as far as our legs would take us.  Thankfully we were pretty successful in avoiding the crowds; it’s all about timing.  Early morning is the perfect time to beat the rush and it’s also a great time to really see the contrasting colors and textures of the beautiful sculptured stones.  In my next life I want to come back as a nature photographer (or a major league baseball player) so I can capture the artistry of nature in these incredible places.  I love national parks!

Our favorite hike in Moab was actually outside the park.  Every day we drove back and forth along highway 128 and passed a sign for the Grandstaff Canyon Trail.  One day we decided to give it a try and took the hike into the canyon to Morning Glory Bridge, a huge natural stone bridge.  It was incredible to look up at the bridge and see how massive it is.  There’s also a natural spring that comes flowing right out of the rock to form a small pond that feeds into the creek nearby.  It was a beautiful hike, and yes, lots more WOWs!!

Pretty soon time and schedules closed in on us, so we started heading toward Seattle where the calendar dictated that we had to be.  Along the way we stopped in some great river side campgrounds and eventually drove over Snoqualmie Summit, past my old Skier’s Inc. stomping grounds where our family spent nearly every winter weekend when I was a kid.  On June 3rd I reported to Swedish Hospital where my left knee was replaced with a lovely new titanium version.  Since then we’ve been in Snohomish while I got my knee to work again, and Marty took care of everything else (did I mention that he’s awesome?)!

What’s next in the adventures of Marty and Sue?  Glad you asked!

We’re delighted and excited, jubilant and overjoyed to announce that Kyle and Rachael are going to have a baby boy!!  We’ll soon be flying down to San Luis Obispo to welcome our grandson…WOW!  We’re so excited and can’t wait to meet the little guy, and to share in the new adventures that await Kyle and Rachael and their new little family.

So, there you have it!  Life on the hard hasn’t actually been too hard, in fact, it’s a little too easy!  Need groceries?  There’s a Mega-Mercado right down the street with rows and rows of shiny cans and bottles and boxes of every food stuff you could ever imagine.  Every time I go into the grocery store or a big box store, I’m still a bit overwhelmed.  I miss my tiny tiendas and the all day thrash to get to town and back; dusty shelves with a mish mash of foods all stacked together, a can of this, a box of that, expiration dates be damned, but always enough of what we needed.

So yes, we’re enjoying our excursion to life on the hard, where the living is easy, and yet at the same time we’ve been reminded that our favorite life style is to enjoy short stints here, there and everywhere, floating forays hither and yon to empty anchorages, and land yacht treks and travels.  It’s time to put on our planning hats and figure out what’s next!!

Hmmmm….where to next??

Chasing Sunsets

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.

2018-2019 Travels of Happy Dance and crew

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…

Decisions…

This season has been tough. The distance from family and friends felt farther even though we’re usually just a plane ride away.  At one point 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.

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, wind against the current 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.

We seem to be feeling a bit ambivalent about being in Panama after having spent nearly two years in getting here.   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.

Decision made!

We’re returning to the land of tacos and 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 we’re not feeling those things here in this particular slice of paradise, we’re more focused on the reasons we 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, and now it’s time to return to the places that we have enjoyed the most.

Our life is an escapade and we are happy 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.

Sunset Isla Parida, Panama

 

So… How was your trip?

This is certainly a question I would ask of someone who had been away on a vacation; but would I want the version you would hear on an elevator ride or something more detailed? Well, you are in luck!! We will do both! I’m taking a shot at the quick and painless while Sue will fill in with an expanded version. So remember, we are on a “No Work, No Headache” tour after we retired from our corporate-type jobs and looking at a possible place to retire in Panama and surrounding that with a couple of true vacations. One on the beaches of Costa Rica and another on the beaches of Maui.

Now, for the Lobby to the 12th Floor version… We had great time… (stare at the numbers clicking by)! Ok, here’s a little bit more information! Costa Rica was great on the beach but San Jose (in the mountains) was way too busy and the traffic was horrible! The drivers were worse than any trip through Tijuana that I have ever been in. We were on the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Coast side and made a side trip to Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island) for snorkeling. Not much there except a tourist trap. Nice beach, though!
The time spent in Bocas del Toro was fun and informative. We enjoyed the weather, even the heavy rains at times, the waterfront and beaches. We did take a trip around the islands as part of the real estate research, we were very close to making an offer on some land, and that helped complete our overview of the islands. People were friendly, Sue said she felt safe walking downtown by herself, and there is a great ex-pat community there that we were fortunate enough to enter on the fringes. Taxis into town were $1 per person… sometimes $2; beer was $1.25 except at the hoity toity places it was $1.75; the beaches are soft white sand, and the surfers loved the breaks they were getting out at the point! It would take some adjustment to living there but we could see ourselves doing that quite easily. We finally decided, after a fitful, tossing and turning night that we needed to “Remember our Dream” of sailing and put this decision on hold. Once we have accomplished that dream; Bocas will certainly be on the list of places to check out for our land-based portion of retirement!
When we left the waterfront of Bocas, we traveled to the mountains of Panama and ended up in the small town of Boquete. Lots of activity while we were there since it was the Fiesta de las Flores… Festival of Flowers. The town was over run with tourists and locals from the surrounding areas. Lots of indigenous Indians and their very colorful dress were in town for the fiesta. We had a great time hiking on the Quetzal Trail and actually saw 3 of the beautiful rare birds! Our guide was practically doing cartwheels on the trail he was so excited! We also toured around the farms of a coffee plantation, Cafe Ruiz, and tasted the various types of coffee. You usually use “eye opening” when talking about coffee but this truly was an eye opener about the process and the different intensities of various beans.
From there we flew to the major metropolis of Panama City for a night on our way to the Tocumen International Airport. Way too crazy for us to venture out and we had an early morning wake up call, to boot. Flying standby on any airline is chancy and we were very lucky to be on the first flight to Dallas… that was great because we didn’t really want to go to Miami, which was our other choice. We arrived in Dallas, rushed through Customs and Immigration (there was no one there… other than the officials!!) where we had a short wait to catch a flight to LA. We had decided we could keep going if we got there early enough to catch a flight to Maui where we would eventually meet up with my brother Ron, or we could stay in LA for a day to visit with Kyle & Brittany, or Scoot or Randy. But, no, we were able to walk off the early arriving flight from Dallas feeling good and onto a flight to Maui. Outstanding!!! We finally arrived in Hawaii at 8 PM after leaving Panama City at midnight Hawaiian time. It made for a long butt-numbing day but we were in the land of soft breezes and mai tais!
Ron and Cindy arrived a couple of days later and we enjoyed a wonderful week riding the Pacific Whale Foundation boats on our many whale watching adventures. Toss in some trips to wonderful restaurants and being introduced to Hawaiian Shaved Ice – Ululani style, and it was a fabulous week of being on the water and enjoying the sunshine Hawaii is well known for.
We left Hawaii after a scrumptious dinner at Mama’s Fish House in Paia and returned to LA where we visited with Kyle and Brittany while watching the Super Bowl (commercials rock!… except this year!). Then we took a trip with Scoot down to San Diego to meet up with some cousins, eventually leaving the next day to finally make that final leg back home to Seattle. We had lots of fun and did interesting things, met some nice people, explored foreign lands and cultures; but sleeping in your own bed is a priceless experience in itself!

OK, so I know we are on the 212th floor by now but this has been an experience so far out of the norm that I get carried away! My thanks to my lovely wife, Sue, for not only taking this journey with me; but for also making it a very pleasurable sharing experience! It’s a great life if you don’t weaken!!!