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

 

Bahia Tenacatita

We seem to have found ourselves in the middle of a town meeting of the Nomadic Retiree Cruising Community, with a “mayor” and everything! On any given day in beautiful Bahia Tenacatita there are 25 to 35 boats bobbing on the gentle swell wrapping around Punta Hermanos, with the self-appointed mayor planning activities for the agenda deprived vagabonds.

Bahia Tenacatita is a great anchorage, with protection from the prevalent winter northwesterly on the ocean as well as from the rollers that can be heard crashing onshore a few miles to the east. Occasionally the wind will blow from the south and enter the bay, making for a lumpy night’s sleep, but lately it’s been calm and flat – a cruiser’s paradise.

We’ve been here off and on for nearly a month (most of which I don’t remember because I was asleep) and this week we’ve been enjoying all that this little slice of paradise has to offer!

One day we joined up with a couple of friends for a dinghy excursion up the Estero Verde, a two-mile trip through a thick mangrove forest that leads to a lagoon next to the fishing village of Tenacatita. We’ve been told that there are crocodiles in the narrow river leading to the lagoon, but on our trip we saw herons, egrets, hawks, lots of unnamed birds, and the brightest green lizard I’ve ever seen!

When we arrived in Tenacatita we tied the dinghies to a palm tree and walked across the narrow sandy peninsula into town. There has been some sort of land title grab/recovery going on in the village in the past few years so that most of the palapas are now gone that used to line the beach, but we were still able to find a spot for an awesome lunch of fresh fish and cold cervezas before dinghy-ing back down the narrow jungle trail to Happy Dance.

Another day we took the dingy around the point to the same little village, but this time we were headed for a little beach known as the aquarium, named for all the gazillions of baby fish growing up in the protected reefs surrounding the beach. We pulled the dinghy up on the sand, enjoyed a cup of morning coffee on the empty beach, then donned our snorkel gear to go check out the reef. It lived up to it’s reputation, and we were immediately surrounded by a school of silvery bait fish, then lots of other little guys hiding in the nooks and crannies of the reef. A few eels poked their heads out, and there were plenty of urchins and other pokey looking creatures making for a colorful undersea world.

We are anchored in a little nook at the end of the bay where the estuary enters the bay. The snorkeling right near the boat has been exceptional and one day I even swam with a baby turtle for a good 10 minutes or so. He was only about 14-15 inches in length, but he was so curious about me that he just swam around me, it was awesome! We’ve also had dolphins coming over and scratching themselves on our anchor chain, or swimming around munching on the gazillions of bait fish under the boat. Some whales have also ventured close in to give us a show, making a triple crown of our favorite sea creatures!

Then there are the aforementioned activities organized by the mayor. On Friday nights everyone gathers together in their dinghies for a raft-up to share snacks and stories, and learn a bit about each other. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have a musician serenade us, too. Every afternoon there is a swim to the beach, followed by bocce ball or walks on the beach, then everyone gathers in the palapa to tell stories and enjoy a cold beverage under the palms.

It’s all very casual, and is a great way for cruisers to get together who might simply pass each other coming and going. However, anyone who knows us knows that crowds are definitely not our thing and we’re not good at getting to know new people in social situations, but we’ve been joining in some of the scheduled events or as Marty says; “we’ve been drinking the mayor’s Kool-Aid”.

It’s an interesting gathering of many different types of people; young and young at heart, social butterflies and recluses, retired and working, those who live aboard full-time and those who have a limited amount of time, rich and not as rich, artists and executives, free spirits and type A’s.  The one commonality is that we’re all sailing the same sea, enjoying the beauty and freedom of this unique lifestyle in whatever method each person chooses.

Tenacatita has been a fun stop and we’ve been glad to make some new friends and see yet another side of the cruising lifestyle.  We’ll soon be weighing anchor when the next weather window appears for us to head south, where we’ll be exploring some new territory.  New adventures await!

Calm sea in the anchorage following a brief rain

Random Thoughts and Thanks

Last night we anchored in a little slice of paradise called Bahia San Marte, about 30 miles south of Loreto (25.30.254N 111.01.030W). It was our first night on the hook since being in Puerto Escondido for so many days having work completed on Happy Dance and it was great to be floating under a silent starry sky once again. It was a bit of a roll-y night due to the swell wrapping around the point, so I went up to sleep in the vee-berth for a bit. It was quieter there with only the sound of the waves onshore and I could see the stars through the hatch.

Whenever I hear the shushing of the waves at night I am always transported back to when I was a girl listening to the waves sing me to sleep in my bed on the sleeping porch at Three Tree Point where the giant windows would be swung up to hook onto the ceiling. I slept on the top bunk at the foot of Gran’s bed and there were many mornings when I would wake up on her bed, having rolled out of my bunk during the night.

There are many Three Tree memories that stand out amongst all the family gatherings and some special ones are the summer days spent together with my grandmother. We’d take walks on the beach looking for agates (or “almost agates“), or up the Indian path to pick thimble berries and blackberries. We collected bark that had floated ashore from the passing log booms for our morning fires that would burn with intense blues and greens. We made blackberry pies, read books, and played pinochle. Thanks Gran!

Hemlock Cottage holds different memories for everyone in my family and continues to build memories for the great-great-great-grandchildren of Gran’s Dad who built it in 1905, long before the roads from Seattle led so many to live in such a beautiful place. The log booms no longer pass by the point so there are no more colorful bark fires, and the sleeping porch is gone, but the big windows still let in the fresh salt air and the sound of the waves, and the cousins still gather to enjoy time together. Thanks Great Grandfather Verd!

This morning when I woke my first glance landed on the photo by our bed of Kyle surfng a wave in Nicaragua. His blonde hair is shining in the sun, his hand reaches out to touch the wave that is building beneath him; he’s full of life and the living of it. It brings a smile to my face to think of him and all the gazillion happy memories and moments that we’ve shared. Thanks Kyle!

My mind is obviously wandering through years of memories and I find myself with a silly grin on my face thinking of so many great moments like the one when my brother Bob drove us in his red Land Cruiser up a steep river bed to the top of some mountain in Lake Tahoe to watch the sunrise or when he taught me to ski in the powder on 200’s with the groove filled in. I remember crazy adventures when my sister Meg and I wandered California at a tender age in our mail truck/camper van dubbed Mahitable, or when she taught me to ride horses in Colorado. I loved the drives down narrow roads to nowhere with my Mom in Ireland, and when Meg and I took Mom to Nova Scotia for her 80th birthday and enjoyed a feast of fresh lobster. I love all the Thanksgiving memories with my cousins on the beach at Hope Island, eating turkey till we were about to explode, then walking on the beach and lifting rocks to see the zillion baby crabs run out.  Thanks family!

I think of train stations in Europe when I was traveling with my friend Jeanne, or the VW van that I drove from Amsterdam to the south of France with my friends Roanne and Bill. I think of hiking up above Zermatt to get a closer look at the Matterhorn, and the year I spent in Sweden when I was 18. I think of evenings on the deck with friends at the Inn, and my skiing days, on the mountain seven days a week with all my fellow ski instructors. I think of stressful work trips to Argentina and Pittsburgh, Calgary and London, all made easier because of work friends to share the load and lots of laughs. And I think of all the wonderful friends we’ve met over the past five years of living the dream on Happy Dance.  So many happy memories, so many stories. Thanks friends!

Much of my life has been about traveling and exploring new opportunities. I’ve lived in some beautiful places and taken some crazy twists and turns in my life. I often think that Mom instilled a sense of adventure in me, and the belief that anything is possible. She enrolled me in summer sailing classes when I was 12 and I’m forever grateful as that has made all the difference. I’ll always be thankful to have had three special years with Mom while we built The Blue Goose Inn together. Thanks Mom!

So here I sit in the cockpit with the offshore wind keeping the boat cool, a few rays jumping out by the point, the north wind creating rollers that explode into white froth on the reef, and a pair of ospreys enjoying their morning catch while perched on a cactus. It’s Thanksgiving Day, which seems to be filling me with thankful thoughts.

Exactly four years ago Marty and I were anchored in Puerto los Gatos on our first Thanksgiving in the Sea of Cortez. Were only 18 miles from there and it seems we’ve about come full circle. We are still enjoying the incredible, crazy, cruising life and most importantly we’re still enjoying each other! While we were reveling in an awesome sail yesterday, Marty hugged me and said; thanks for bringing me along, to which I replied; thanks for being crazy enough to do it! We are well matched, he and I; we enjoy the slow nature of this lifestyle and we are grateful for the opportunity to savor it together. It’s hard to explain just how perfect it is to be sitting here getting to experience all this with the man that I love. Thanks HB!

Morning Musings of a Grateful Wanderer

For the past week we’ve been anchored in Punta de Mita, near the entrance to Banderas Bay. Depending on which book you read, the village inside the point is either called El Anclote, or simply Punta de Mita. This was once a sleepy fishing village, but like so many places in Mexico it has grown into a vacation destination, with a few hotels and restaurants on shore along with the luxurious Four Seasons Resort located on the point.

We’re about half a mile offshore and Happy Dance surfs on the big swells rolling in from the south, lifting us up and pushing us forward onto our anchor, and then slowly drifting back in time for the next wave. Whenever we stay in an anchorage for more than a few days we tend to get into a certain routine that fits our location. Here in Punta de Mita our days are a bit different from when we’re up in the Sea of Cortez., mostly because there is a lot going on!

When dawn starts lighting up the porthole we wake to the sounds of Happy Dance rocking gently on the waves, with all her squeaks and rattles as wind plays in the shrouds. Marty (with his coffee-man hat on) starts the coffee while I put on the swim attire of the day and head for the cockpit. We like to sit outside, sip our java, and watch the day take shape. As we’ve been sleeping the fishermen who are out all night fishing in the bay or offshore past the point have come in and anchored their pangas so they can catch a nap until it is light.

I love pangas* – they are amazing. They’re the perfectly designed working boat with a high bow, a deep vee-ed hull, maybe a seat or two, and they’re completely open.   They can carry a full load and still power through any sea state, flying over the waves and slicing down into the troughs without slowing, and they can be driven right up on the beach. The bows ride high off the water so that it’s hard to know if the driver can even see you when he’s coming bows on. Personally I can’t imagine sleeping in one, but as Marty says, if you’re tired enough you can sleep anywhere.

When the sun comes up we start to see the heads of the pescadores (fishermen) popping up over the edges of their pangas. A few stretches to work out the kinks, then they’ll stand on the bow doing a balancing act as they take off their orange slickers that kept them warm overnight. Pretty soon the work begins; pulling fish from the nets or from the hold, cleaning them, laying the ice over them, cleaning and bailing the boat…it’s a process. The frigates, boobies, and pelicans circle around dipping and diving as the fishermen serve breakfast up to them. On any given morning there are up to a dozen pangas anchored or rafted up to each other outside the breakwater protected panga harbor as they prepare their catch to transfer to the waiting trucks onshore.

There’s also “Bait-man” as we’ve affectionately named him. This is an elderly man who comes out in his panga long before daylight, to tie up to a buoy that marks his 6’ round netted fish trap.   He pulls fish out of the trap, and sells them to the fishermen that will be going out in the daytime. From our research vessel investigation, (a.k.a. coffee in the cockpit) we’ve determined that “Bait-man” seems to be focused on selling to the pangueros who take tourists out early to fish, as opposed to the pescadores who get their own bait. It doesn’t appear to be a booming business, but maybe the live bait rush is before dawn when we’re still snoozing. More research required.

Another main event is watching the sunrise. Today’s show was spectacular, as there were clouds on the horizon leftover from the hurricane/tropical depression named Otto.   The sun didn’t actually appear until it was well above the mountains behind Puerto Vallarta that were hidden in a thick bank of clouds. The sky however was speckled with pink puffy clouds that glowed brighter and brighter until suddenly there was the huge golden orb peeking through and spreading silver rays glimmering across the sea. Stunning!

Now a decision had to be made; should we listen to the morning radio net, or get on the paddleboards and head for shore? This morning a shore trip won out because it’s been getting rather blowsy in the afternoon and that makes for a bumpy paddle. Also the swell increases throughout the day so that our beach landings become a bit clumsier. So we flop the paddle boards into the water from the deck, walk the lines aft while dodging the shrouds, sheets, and arch supports, tie them to the stern and then with paddles in hand it’s a delicate step off the swim step onto the board, a little push and we’re off!

We paddled the half-mile or so to the beach, timed our landing to miss the breakers (I’m still a little nervous about falling on my new hip), then hauled the boards up to the beach. Since Marty’s having a bit of gout pain in his foot, he found a good perch to enjoy while I went trekking down the beach. It’s been high tide in the mornings, so my walk kept me on the steeper upper beach and eventually hopping across some rock outcroppings. The sun was still hiding behind the cloud bank, turning the sky a pale silver blue, while the white sand was rippled with color that reflected off the trees and sky as each receding wave left a mirror on the sand. It was hypnotic to watch the surf rolling in, with each breaker creating a transparent shiny window to the sea beyond before hesitating for a final moment before crashing down into white foam.

I love watching birds and there was one little shorebird running up and down the beach keeping a wary eye on me as he poked his long beak into the sand to find some tasty treat. There was also a white egret wading in the pools near the rocks, and up in the trees there were a dozen or so yellow birds singing up a storm.

As I walked back to where we’d left the boards I came across three 20-somethings who had come out of the trees by the shore where it appeared they’d been sleeping. They were each sitting in different patches of rocks that had been washed up the beach and they were sorting and filling 5 gallon buckets with rocks of a certain size. I asked what they were collecting and one of the men said they were gathering rocks for the garden. It made me wonder if this was something they were getting paid to do, or if they were taking them back to their home, or maybe he was just feeding me a line of BS. It also made me aware once again that we live in Mexico, but we really don’t live in Mexico.

The pescadores who fish all night and clean their fish while anchored next to us in our floating homes, the vendors at the local tiendas and market stalls, the artisans who sell us goods or cook our food, the men raking the beach in front of the hotels, and now the people collecting rocks for a garden; they all represent a life we won’t ever know. We share this beautiful country with the people who live here, but we see things through such a different lens. We’re so incredibly lucky and thankful that we can be here, living a lifestyle that most would pay dearly for, and we’re especially grateful at the way the Mexican people welcome us with their generosity and friendly smiles.

If you’re still reading this post (and you have my sincerest thanks for your perseverance), you can tell that I’m definitely in a musing mood! Walking on beaches and floating at anchor has a tendency to make you slow down and think about things. One thing I’m thinking on this morning is being aware of others’ sacrifices. We are all given so much by the things that others’ do or give to us, often in silence. I was struck this morning how Marty joined me for a paddle and walk on the beach even though his foot was bothering him. Watching him step gingerly down on the sand to find a perch where he could wait for me while I walked…I do love him so…and yes, I’m a grateful wanderer. This crazy floating life that we lead…it’s incredible.

 

*Pangas – there are some great articles about the design of the panga.  If you like reading up on stuff…here’s one to get you started!!  http://www.boatingmag.com/boats/history-panga

 

 

Leaving the dock

The hardest part of cruising is leaving the dock.  It doesn’t matter if you’re going out for an afternoon sail, for a month or two of living on the hook, or crossing an ocean, there is always a bit of angst as the moment approaches.

Did we remember everything?  Will all the equipment work?  Will the weather hold?  Will there be any more hurricanes this season?  Do we have enough books on our Kindles?  Is there enough beer?

The items on our to do list have (almost) all been checked off.  The engine and equipment have been checked.  The rigging has been inspected, and the sails are on.  The laundry is done and the fridge is full.  We’ve checked and downloaded the weather and updated software.

Since arriving as newbies in 2013, we’ve learned a lot and gotten to know and love the many bays and islands in the Sea.  Now in our fourth year we feel like old hands, reciting off chart names easily, knowing where to anchor for each forecast, recognizing familiar faces and favorite anchorages.  Even though it feels like coming home, there is still so much to see and experience.  We still want to swim with the whale sharks, catch more Dorado and Wahoo, meet more friends and rekindle old friendships, learn the names of the reef fish, help a turtle make it to the ocean, learn more Spanish so that we can really communicate and just settle into a life of ahhhh…that perfect rhythm that is called cruising.

This departure is a relatively easy one, as long as Murphy stays behind on the dock!  For our first few nights out we’ll be staying just a short distance away, on either Isla Espiritu Santo or Isla Partida, the islands just north of La Paz.  We’ll find a spot to anchor and officially begin our fourth season in the Sea of Cortez.

I am reminded of our first departure from the dock back in March 2013.  We had been getting ready for our bon voyage for six months, but Murphy reared his ugly head and we were back in the marina in a matter of days to fix a broken throttle cable.  That first month out was truly a shakedown cruise, as every piece of equipment seemed to want its moment of attention.  Luckily we always seemed to be in a semi-convenient place when something broke, so the fixes were frustrating but not safety issues.

Another departure that sticks in my mind is when we left Ketchikan headed for San Francisco.  I remember walking the docks giving last-minute hugs to our friends, sending last emails to family back home, and looking at the gray skies and gun-metal seas.  I had some serious butterflies as I got onboard and we untied the lines.  Thankfully it was a safe and relatively pleasant journey, albeit a long one!

So here we go again, sailing off into the wild blue.  It will be so nice to drop the hook tomorrow, jump into the warm water, and settle into the quiet of another sunset at sea.  Ahhhhhh….toss those lines, let’s go!

Ready to leave the dock!

Ready to leave the dock!