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…


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


Floating, Tico Style

In Costa Rica the locals call themselves “Ticos” (or “Ticas” if you’re female) and there are all kind of things that are typically Tico.  There’s tico-time, which means they’ll get there when they get there.  There’s tico-tipico, which describes Costa Rican food available in the “sodas” (restaurants).  And then there’s the tico version of a float trip…

It all started when we (Grant and Michelle from Wildest Dreams and ourselves) decided to find a tour that would take us into the primary growth of the Corcovado Reserve.  Over a yummy lunch at Roberto’s of fresh Mahi Mahi and Red Snapper, we did a little (very little) research into tours available from Drake Bay where we and m/v Wildest Dreams were currently anchored. There were night tours to see snakes and frogs, bird watching tours, canoe tours, or one where you could sleep overnight in a tree house (now that sounds cool!).

We’d already spent a day in the Curu Reserve (photos above) and had great fun seeing lots of critters, so we opted for a different kind of adventure this time.  It might have been over the second beer when I happened to read about a Floating Tour.  The description read; moderate hike into primary growth forest, a swim under a waterfall, and a float down the Rio Claro.  Okay says I, I’ll call them!  Presto, we’re reserved for the following morning.  Meet Carlos at 8am on the beach.  Got it.

Now you have to understand that we float.  Every day all day.  Our boats float.  We are dry when we float.  So, for some insane reason I had it in my mind that we’d be floating down the river in some sort of boat.  That doesn’t seem like too much to ask does it?  Boats are good!  They keep you dry, away from crocodiles and snakes, off the rocks, and out of the mud!   However, as I learned the morning of our tour, the other three in our group had already figured that “floating” meant “floating”!  Hmmm…nobody bothered to inform the slow one in the group, namely me!­

It’s now morning so we jump in the dinghy to head for the beach rendezvous.  Swimsuits on, backpack full of necessary items like bug spray, water, a towel, binoculars…we’re ready!  We arrive at the beach, wheel the dinghy up to a tree to tie it out of the reach of high tide, meet up with Carlos, hop in the truck, and off we go for a dusty 30-minute ride up the hillside behind town and into the Corcovado Forest.  At the last minute as we’re getting ready to leave the truck and start hiking Carlos hands me a life jacket, looks at my tennis shoes and my non-waterproof backpack and says, you know you’re going to get all wet, right?


You’re probably all way ahead of me by now, but I was finally starting to see the light, finally starting to realize that I did NOT prepare correctly for this adventure!  I should have worn different clothes, different shoes, and put our gear into a dry bag.  Somehow the rest of the crew had done just that…where was I?  On well, what’s a girl to do?  Have a good laugh at my own stupidity, stuff the backpack back in the truck, and sally forth!

With Carlos having a good chuckle at my expense, and after ditching everything but the camera (which thankfully IS waterproof), we headed into the forest.  With each step into the trees we found ourselves in a different world.  The canopy formed by the trees overhead blocked most of the sun, the air grew close, the sounds were muffled, and the colors more intense.

Carlos told us about various trees and plants that are good for different remedies.  The bark of one tree will help stop bleeding, another is used to treat gastritis, another will alleviate arthritis pains, and there’s even one makes a wine that will get you very drunk, but only if you sit in the sun after drinking it!  Crazy and fascinating!  We also learned that we could tell this was primary forest because of the types of plants that thrived on the forest floor.  There are some plants that will only survive where the canopy is thick enough to keep the sun and rain off their leaves, as it is in the old growth forest.

The forest is full of huge trees that form a dense maze of leaves, vines, twisty trunks and hanging bromeliads.  During the rainy season it’s not uncommon for giant trees to come crashing down as their roots lose their grip in the mud created from the 6 FEET of rain each month.  We saw plenty of downed trees, vines growing both up and down from branches in the canopy, lots of crazy spiky trees, and green, every hue of green.  It’s an amazingly beautiful place and we were glad to learn that Costa Rica is serious about protecting these important environments.

Back to the adventure!  We hiked about 45 minutes on a deep carpet of leaves, over many leaf cutter ant highways, and fallen trees.  Because of the humidity and the complete lack of moving air, we were all soon drenched in sweat, except for Carlos of course; he was fresh as a daisy, walking barefoot through the forest, stepping easily over the ant trails, the root tangles, and downed logs.  Oh to be 70..ha!

Eventually we came to a spot that Carlos said was a little “tricky” and we needed to be careful.  I think that must have been a Tico way of saying, “We’re now going to climb down a cliff by hanging on to tree roots to keep us from plunging to our death!”  The reason we had to climb down the “tricky” section was because the old trail had been wiped out recently by a land slide that took out the side of the hill.  Hmmmm…

Marty had to go in front of me, because my creaky knees were not up to the downward descent.  But leaning on my stable man and hanging on to various roots we finally made it to the bottom where we were rewarded with a dip in the cool waters at the base of the waterfall.  Ahhhhh, it felt great to be swimming in fresh water!

After our swim, a snack and a little rest, we were off again, down to the Rio Claro.  We soon arrived at a spot where we prepared to float.  Carlos demonstrated how we would wear our life jackets upside down, like float-able diapers.  It was hysterical trying to get zipped and clipped into life jackets that are upside down and backwards, and thankfully the Coast Guard was nowhere in sight to see our abuse of safety equipment!  We giggled our way into our diapers and waddled down to the river to get the next part of this party started.

The river was fairly low, it is dry season after all, so we bumped along on rocks occasionally, and we also had to “portage” around a few rapids and waterfalls.  However, we mostly floated peacefully down the river, watching the sunlight play in the canopy overhead.  I’m sure we scared off any wild life with all our laughter, and Carlos was very amused at our antics…I think.  At least he kept shaking his head and laughing, so I’m going with he was amused!  Click HERE to see a short video of our craziness…

Pretty soon we arrived at deeper water where the current was stopped by the ocean waves entering the river.  In other words, time to swim!  It’s very difficult to swim with tennies on, and in a life jacket that is under you.  When you stretch out to swim, your rear-end is higher than your head so you basically end up trying not to drown yourself.  After paddling for about a mile in deep water, we crawled up on the sand of a gorgeous beach on the Pacific Ocean, about 2 miles from where our boats were anchored.

Needless to say we were all pretty tired by this time, but wait, there’s more!  We got out of our crazy life jacket floaties, Michelle emptied the water out of her “dry” bag (oops!) and off we went for another hike, this time along the beach.  Whether it was the humidity and not enough water to drink along the way, or just a case of a bunch of lazy cruisers out hiking and floating, we were all pooped!  Walking on the sand in the hot sun for another 45 minutes was a killer.

Thankfully we were rewarded by a memorable moment as we walked; this time it was a loud pandemonium of scarlet macaws in a leafless tree along the beach.  Evidently, it’s mating season for the macaws right now, and since macaws’ mate for life it’s a big deal!  There was plenty of squawking and screeching as the pairs of macaws in the tree either argued over a mate or just had a marital squabble.  Whatever it was they were doing was fascinating.  These are some incredible birds, about 2 feet long from head to tail, with multi-colored feathers and strong beaks.  Beautiful.

Eventually we stumbled back to the truck, drove the rest of the way over the hill to town, found some tico-typico casada (chicken, rice and beans), and gathered enough strength to flop ungracefully back into the dinghy and back to our boats.  A few Advil for creaky knees, a swim in the pool, and soon we were feeling human again.  Floating down the Rio Claro…a tico adventure to remember!


Mud to Mountains

Happy Dance is currently “mud-moored” at a dock in the Puerto Azul Marina in Punta Arenas, Costa Rica.  We had planned to be much further south by the end of January so that we didn’t have to leave Happy Dance in the muddy, tidal estuary of Punta Arenas, but the month of January has been full of unexpected challenges and some crazy winds. The reason we needed Happy Dance to be tied to a dock is so that we can zip off on a trip to Seattle to celebrate son Brad’s wedding to Jesse (YAY!!).

In order to enter the estuary and avoid the mud flats and moving sand bars we needed to follow a pilot-boat and time our arrival at high tide.  With a close eye on the depth sounder that kept flashing in single digits, we slowly made our way up the shallow estuary, bordered on one side by crumbling docks and mooring balls and on the other side by thick mangroves.

We had been assured we’d have enough depth for our 6’8” keel in the marina, but we were soon stuck in the mud and still waiting for low tide.  Happy Dance was hard aground, but thankfully still upright, when at complete low tide we were 2’ out of the water.  UGH!  Thankfully the bottom was soft, and the tide was soon rushing in to float Happy Dance…for a few hours until the next low tide!

With our mud-mooring complete, it was now time for a land adventure with our buddies on Wildest Dreams.  We rented a car and headed to the mountains to see cloud forests, volcanoes, and hopefully some critters!  We’d read in our travel guides that roads in the mountains of Costa Rica could be a bit rough and that it was a good idea to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle.  As we drove up toward Monteverde and Santa Elena on the steep, rutted, dirt roads, we were glad that we’d listened to the advice!

Adding to the driving adventure was our mapping app that kept sending us off on little “excursions”.  We’d suddenly be told to take a slight right or slight left, that would lead us down some barely passable road, then bring us back to the main, slightly more passable road!  These mountain roads are called “Ruta Nationales” and are described as “seasonal”; we decided they must be completely washed out in the rainy season.

On the drive from Monteverde to La Fortuna, we let our map app lead us once again, over hill and dale, on roads that looked like cattle trails, and right across 6 rivers!  It was a riot and we laughed our way along, hoping that we wouldn’t be the headline about the car full of crazy tourists who floated down into the lake!  While driving around the lake, the Arenal Volcano was ever present, drifting in and out of the clouds and providing plenty of picturesque view.

Once we arrived in the mountains, we explored Monteverde, Santa Elena, and La Fortuna.  We hiked through the cloud forest, visited a butterfly reserve, snickered at sloths, and peered at the gazillions of birds and other critters.  The forest itself was stunning, with huge tropical trees forming a canopy that blocked the sun, vines as thick as trees winding themselves up into the mist, huge green leaves, colorful flowers in all shapes and sizes, dripping undergrowth, and sounds of birds all around.  It was magical.

On our final day enjoying flora and fauna we got to see a forest of sloths.  (Click here for a video of big daddy!!) We saw six three-toed sloths; two mamas with babies hanging on them, a big daddy, and a juvenile.  Then we got really lucky and saw a sleeping two-toed mama in the treetops.  The two-toed are harder to find during the day since they do their eating and activity at night and sleep all day.  There are a gazillion fun factoids about sloths that I won’t go into, but they are certainly fun to watch!

We’re now in Seattle for a couple of weeks, to visit with family and friends and celebrate Brad and Jesse!  Then we’ll fly back to Happy Dance, dig her out of the mud and sail out to the islands to play.  It’s a tough life!


Full Circle

Seven years ago, we landed in San Jose, Costa Rica to begin what has become a nonstop adventure, a permanent picnic, an excellent escapade!   We called it G.R.E.A.T. (Grand Retirement Escapade and Tour) and it certainly has been quite a ride!

This past week as we sailed by Tambor, Costa Rica, in the Gulf of Nicoya, we passed by the hotel where we’d spent a week on the beginning of our month in Costa Rica and Panama in 2011-2012.  It was kind of surreal to be sailing by in our home afloat looking at the beach where we’d watched the ocean through the palms from our beach side resort back then.  Happy Dance was a dream unrealized, and we’d yet to even decide on a life at sea.  It seems like so long ago and measured in miles traveled and the gazillion or so adventures we’ve shared since then, I guess it was!

We arrived in Playas del Coco just before Christmas after leaving the ferocious winds of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua.  We had planned on spending some time in the reportedly beautiful anchorage of Santa Elena, but with the Papagayos forecast to ramp up, and some sad news coming from home, we decided the best decision was to use the one calm day we had to make our escape from windy Nicaragua to a town where we’d have access to an airport, namely Playas del Coco.

Being at sea during times of family emergencies makes us realize how isolated we sometimes are.  We’d received word before leaving San Juan del Sur that Marty’s Dad, lovingly called “Grumpy”, was in the hospital.  With little information reaching us from home it was tough to know what to do.  We weren’t able to put Happy Dance in a marina because we weren’t checked into Costa Rica yet, so anchoring out in Playas del Coco in 30+ knot winds was our only option while we tried to determine how to get Marty home.

We spent a very frustrating day wandering around town and waiting for officials so that we could get all the correct stamps and pieces of paper to make us legal and to allow Marty to be able to leave the country without being tossed in jail.  Walking between the Port Captain, a closed Immigration office, the Port Captain, and a still closed Immigration office, made us a bit crazy, not to mention, HOT.  Thankfully, the friendly ladies at the Port Captain’s office helped us by calling Immigration in Liberia to find out when the local office would be open and ultimately got us an appointment later that night for us to meet with them.  Once that was done we had the problem of how to get back to the boat in the dark since the water taxis don’t run after dark!  Another friendly local took pity on us and called his buddy and voila, a ride home to Happy Dance.  The next day Marty had an appointment with the Customs officials at the airport, where IF he got the right stamps for Happy Dance, he’d then be able to board a plane to the states.  Again, the friendly people of Costa Rica helped us out and Marty was able to fly to Texas.

His time in Texas was tough, to put it lightly, arriving to find Grumpy in the hospital with little time left.  After a life full of love and family, his 90 year old body was winding down.  We’re so thankful that Marty was able to be there with his brothers, to hold his Dad’s hand and have a chance to talk with him in those final days.  Grumpy passed away in his sleep on Christmas morning with his family around him, knowing he was loved.

Marty flew home to Happy Dance a few days later.  I was ecstatic to have him home but I’m sure he felt a bit numb after a week of hospitals and sadness, to come back to Playas del Coco, a busy little gringo town with lots of sunshine, and festive music.  So we left the dusty streets and noisy nightlife to head a bit north to Playa Iguanita.  We spent a quiet New Year’s Eve anchored there, listening to howler monkeys and birds, and the waves on shore.  It was a nice spot to begin 2019, to reflect on how lucky we are, and to bid a final farewell to Grumpy.

Our next stop was the perfect little anchorage of Playa Guacamaya.  It felt like we were finally back to enjoying the cruising life; floating over clear water in a protected anchorage where we snorkeled, swam, walked the empty beach, and sat in the cockpit enjoying the view.  Perfect.

After a few days enjoying the peaceful anchorage, the wind changed, making it time to head further south.  We stopped just a few miles away in Playa Conchal.  Billed as one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful bays we had planned to stay a few days to walk the long sandy beaches, however on the way into the anchorage Marty was on the bow and he kept pointing to something in the water for me to see.  (warning for Megret and Julie K, picture of snake below!)

We saw dozens of snakes slithering along the surface as we made our way to the anchorage, and there were quite a few around the boat after we dropped the hook.  Since we had internet, we googled to see what they were; yellow bellied sea snakes, highly venomous, for which there is no antidote.  Yikes; the pool is now closed!  Supposedly they don’t bite since they have small mouths, but it just didn’t sound like a fun time to be swimming with poisonous snakes.  Needless to say, we left the next morning!

Our next trek took us around Cabo Velas where we started heading in a more southeasterly direction.  We’re continually surprised at how far east we’ve actually come since leaving Alaska.  Our current longitude is 84 degrees West, nearly due south of Atlanta!

Full Circle!

The 50-mile trip from Playa Conchal to Bahia Samara was another typical travel day on this blustery coast; full of sail changes, getting slammed with too much sail out, becalmed after reefing, and finally motoring into a headwind over choppy seas.  We finally arrived in Bahia Samara and skirted the huge reef in the middle of the bay to anchor behind a tiny island called Isla Chora that provided a bit of relief from the incoming southern swell off the ocean.

Our days in Bahia Samara were full of swimming (no snakes), snorkeling, paddling, exploring the tide pools on the island, and listening to the waves crashing over the reef.  We hitched a ride to shore with Wildest Dreams and got completely lost trying to find the town because we thought that we were anchored right in front of it.  Nope!  We walked in circles for a bit getting strange looks when we asked locals where Samara was, but finally discovered that a taxi ride was in order since town was a 40-minute walk along a narrow busy road.  We finally arrived at the far end of the bay where the actual town of Samara was, perused the touristy shops, checked out the market, and of course found a beach side restaurant for lunch!  Ahh, the life of the cruiser…sometimes all who wander ARE lost..ha!

Leaving Samara for Bahia Ballena was another 50 mile jaunt, and again we spent our day hoisting and dousing sails, flying at 8 knots on a perfect broad reach, and becalmed on a lumpy sea.  Rounding Punta Blanco was a challenge with wind on the nose, breaking waves, and an opposing current.

Before rounding the final corner and heading into Bahia Ballena, we realized that we were passing Tambor, the site of our official starting point on the Grand Retirement Tour!  We could even see the waterfalls where we’d hiked, and swam in the tide pools.  Great memories, and fun to think of having come full circle.

When we anchored in southern end of Bahia Ballena we were next to the pier where we’d taken a panga ride to Isla Tortuga seven years ago.  Everything looked about the same, with all the pangas tied to the pier in a Med-moor mess, each with a separate anchor, but all leading to a single tie point.  We paddled to the beach to explore the little town, and visited Cristina’s restaurant, a landmark that’s been open for over 30 years in the same spot and run by its namesake.

One day the four of us dinghied up the river into a mangrove lined paradise.  After turning off the motor, we floated along listening to the roar of the howler monkeys in the distance (second loudest animal in the world!), and the birds fluttering through the trees.  There was one sound we were never able to identify that sounded like ping pong balls bouncing.  Was it the mud bubbling?  A bird calling?  Crocodiles burping?  Who knows, but it was a fun day of floating on a mirror in the midst of green.

When the winds changed, we headed to the north end of the bay and anchored in front of Playa de Muertos, where we were told the name was given because of a school of dolphins that beached themselves there.  It’s a rather sad name for a beautiful spot!  We loved the palms on the beach, the reef protecting us from the swell, the parrots squawking in the trees, and the quiet nights.  Perfect.

So, we’re now sitting on Happy Dance as she rests in the mud while tied to a dock in Puerto Azul Marina.  We were assured by the marina that we’d have enough water for our 6’8” keel, but I don’t think they took the full moon (and lovely lunar eclipse!!) into account.  At the moment the tide is a negative 1.25′, and Happy Dance is a couple of feet out of the water, stuck in the nasty mud of the estuary.  UGH.  It’s especially strange since the bottom isn’t flat so our bow is higher than the stern.  Why are we here you might ask?  We’re leaving Happy Dance on her own for a couple of weeks while we go inland to explore the mountains in Costa Rica, then we’ll hop a flight to Seattle to go celebrate Brad and Jesse’s wedding!  Exciting times!

So, there you have it blog readers, you’re all caught up on the circuitous travels, life changes, and exciting escapades of the Happy Dancers.  A circle of thousands of miles and a gazillion adventures, and always more to come.  As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida!!

Nicaragua, or Volcanes y Viento!!

We didn’t plan to stop in Nicaragua as we made our way down the coast, but weather and circumstances changed our plans.  After leaving El Tigre, Honduras on the outgoing tide at o’dark-thirty we motor-sailed through the maze of pangas and nets around the point and into a decreasing wind, passing Puerto Corinto around 3:00pm.  We’d gone about three miles past the channel entrance when we ran into a line of squalls and a 25-knot “noserly” (aka wind directly on the nose).  With 150 miles yet to go we decided to make a quick u-turn and anchor in Corinto for the night rather than bash into what was quickly becoming an ugly ride.

Our friends on m/v Wildest Dreams and s/v Shantey were already in Corinto, so we were happy to have buddies nearby.  While on passage that day we’d also discovered a problem with charging the batteries, so working on the issues in a calm anchorage was a much better choice than worrying about it while trekking through a blow.

First things first, it was time to check in with the Port Captain, so the next morning we hitched a ride in Wildest Dreams’ dinghy and tried to find a place to tie up.  The choices were a nasty mud beach at low tide with hidden pipes sticking up waiting to impale the dinghy, or a slippery rock wall, or some rusting shrimpers rafted together at the dock…okay, rock wall it is.  Thankfully a friendly gentleman pointed us into a corner that looked like it might work, so we crawled up the rocks, tied the dinghy to a shrimper and threw out a stern anchor to keep the dinghy from grinding against the huge barnacles on the hull of the shrimper.

Our next step was to find the Port Captain’s office.  We asked one of the guards at the gate to the power plant where the office was, and he gave us very specific, and very involved directions in Spanish.  We did pretty well at first to understand all the rights and lefts, and two more blocks, and one more street…, but after a while we must have looked a bit confused.  He laughed and called over a young man who then proceeded to lead us on his bicycle.  It was a long walk with plenty of twists and turns, so it was nice to have a tour leader!

We finally arrived at the Port Captain’s office looking a bit worse for wear and sweating like gringos, but we received a friendly welcome, and the naval cadets quickly brought out chairs for us to sit in while we waited for the Captain.  Eventually all the people were in place; the Customs official, Immigration official, and the Port Captain and his assistants.  Marty and I were led into the Port Captain’s air-conditioned office where six people were all working on getting us checked in.  It took about half an hour, lots of dollars, and a bit of explaining as to who we were, where we were from, where we were going, and what a “Happy Dance” is!  After we were “finito” it was Wildest Dreams turn, then we were finally set free to roam around town.

Nicaragua has been getting some bad press lately due to violence in the cities stemming from a bad political situation.  Thankfully in Corinto we didn’t see any of that, and we were actually told by a local (Florida Bert, our tricycle driver) that Corinto was one of the safest places in Nica because the President owns the port, and it’s the biggest commercial port in the country with plenty of extra security.  We did feel uncomfortable when groups of well lubricated tough guys were yelling at us and making weird comments, but that wasn’t too often and all the other people we met were very friendly and helpful.

The town of Corinto is bigger than we’d imagined, and also much poorer.  There are very few cars on the roads, only bicycles, motorbikes and a few taxis.  The main form of transportation is via tricycles with seats for four in front that the driver has to pedal.  There are a few shops and restaurants, but most were empty or closed and the locals didn’t appear to be spending much.  There’s a town square with a church and public market, a few stalls selling wares, and lots of people looking as though they were surprised to see Americans!  We found a good spot for lunch, with delicious food and gringo prices.  One day a cruise ship came in, which surprised us, but it didn’t seem as though too many people left the ship; and in talking with a restaurant owner, he felt the bad press and the bad president is directly affecting the locals’ business.  He also seemed to think that the “dictator president and his wife” would be gone soon and the country would start turning around.

When we found what we hoped was a good weather window we went back to the Port Captain to do all the paperwork again and prepared to leave Corinto at daylight the next day.  The Navy drove by and took photos of the boats and made sure that we left when we said we were going to.  We headed out of the channel on the outgoing tide and pointed the bow south for a planned overnight run to San Juan del Sur, about 200 miles away.

This section of Nicaraguan coastline from Corinto down to the northern edge of Costa Rica is notorious for nasty winds called Papagayos.  These are gap winds build in the Caribbean and funnel across the low-lying narrow land mass out into the Pacific.  In a word, it’s rough, and the farther off shore you travel the rougher it gets as the increased fetch creates even bigger waves.  We had chosen to leave under a forecast of 15-20 knots, hoping for a close reach with enough wind to sail but not over stress the crew…yeah, that was a dream.  We’d heard other cruisers say that when planning to travel this coast that you need to double the forecasted wind speeds.  We’re now believers in the double down method.

Our day started out well, motor sailing in light winds off the forward quarter.  It wasn’t long before the wind moved in front of us, so that to maintain a course near shore we wouldn’t be able to sail, as we would have had to angle away from shore which we really didn’t want to do.  The wind was now well into the 30’s so we reefed the main, battened down the hatches and got mentally prepared for a long crappy ride.  We were also starting to feel the effects of having been lulled into thinking we could believe the forecast, because we’d followed our rhumb line and we were now too far from shore where the waves were getting steep and very close together, in other words, not comfy at all.  Green water was coming over the bow and spraying into the cockpit, the waves were slowing us down, and the wind gusts were providing a wild chilly ride.  Welcome to the tropics!

After a few hours of this we decided to cut the trip into two segments and headed for the next good anchorage.  We pointed toward Masachapa, set the hook, blew the conch for sunset and relaxed…to get ready for another day of fun!?!

Day two was much like day one…having to motor sail about 35 degrees off the wind, fighting the gusts and wind waves.  We’d started out with a reefed main and kept it that way all day.  Even though we had to constantly adjust the sail as the wind shifted forward and aft, it was giving us quite a lift and we were happy to make the best time possible.  Our speed over ground varied from 4 to 7.5 knots depending on the current wind and waves.  When the waves slowed us down to 4 knots we started thinking about finding another hidey hole.  The next anchorage was Astilleros, a protected anchorage out of the wind and swell, but getting there would mean driving directly into the steep swell.  With a report from one of our Bahia buddies up ahead that the conditions smoothed out after rounding the point, we decided to carry on the three or four hours into Pie del Gigante and hope for the best.  Luck was with us and even though the winds were steady in the low thirties with higher gusts, the sea state did settle down a bit as we rounded the point and came closer into shore.

We were happy to see the sheltered anchorage of Pie del Gigante ahead and we were soon anchored and enjoying an afternoon swim.  After a peaceful night at anchor it was up at first light for the final push into San Juan del Sur, our final destination in Nicaragua.  The winds were already building so we were glad we’d chosen to start at dawn.

San Juan del Sur is what I would call a “gringo-ized” town, though not the Cabo or Cancun type of gringo-ized..with big box stores and heavy on the retail hell where you’d never know you’re in a foreign country; this is a friendly kind of gringo-ism, with plenty of young surfer dudes and dude-ettes, diverse nationalities, and a great mix of eclectic foodie cafes and restaurants.  It’s a fun spot, but man does it blow (not the town – the wind!).   We had a couple of calm days when we first arrived so that we were able to explore the town a bit and take in some of the sights.  It’s a beautiful spot with lots of friendly people and we wished for a calmer anchorage so that we could explore more.

We spent four days boat bound listening to the wind wail through the rigging.  It was wild to hear the gusts begin onshore as a high pitched moan, that increased in decibels as it approached.  Happy Dance strained at her anchor in the gusty 40+ knots, the mast was pumping and we were heeling as the wind crossed the beam.  All was well, just not too comfy.  As Ivan on Shantey said; “it’s a bit lively!”

So now we have a weather window for a couple of days before another bigger blow.  We’ve been told by a local that these aren’t even the infamous Papagayos yet; “this is just wind”.  Well, Papagayo or not, it blows!!  Today is check out of the country day, followed by some provisioning for Christmas dinner, then off we go in the morning to Bahia Santa Elena in Costa Rica.

Nicaragua is a beautiful country, with friendly people who are struggling against a tough political situation.  The two towns we’ve visited, Corinto and San Juan del Sur are at opposite ends of the spectrum in pretty much every way.  We’re glad to have visited and to have experienced yet another side of Central America.  It’s all these little vignettes and memories that we take with us that make the cruising life such a joy.