I had a few weeks off before we all had to fly down to New Zealand for Share the Sail. I had cleared my schedule so that I could put the finishing touches into the circumnavigation book. The phone rang, as it does. It was one of those Skype numbers that begins with a bunch of zeros and would mean that I would soon be booking airfare to somewhere warm. It was our old friend Chuck. He was running the Bocas Del Toro Marina in Panama. Bocas is the premiere hurricane hideout on the west side of the Caribbean. Chuck had a client in the marina who wanted his boat moved to the dock in front of his house in Venezuela. Venezuela? Love to.
I emailed the owner and got some trip specifics and returned him a quote. I explained that I had plenty of time to do the job when I got back from Share the Sail. At the end of the email I added another quote. This one was the higher price that I would do the delivery for if he needed it done immediately … in the windiest time of year up through the roughest part of the Caribbean. I figured that if the boat was ready to go we could knock the trip out in a couple of weeks. He assured me it was and opted for the rush job.
I needed crew. This was going to be a brutal upwind slog into 20 foot seas. It was shaping up to be a tough sell. Mike Z was the first to take the bait. He had a pro fisherperson friend that wanted to come along too. I received the signed contract and the wired $ and booked the last minute flights.
I met Mike and Stacia coming off their plane in Panama City. Cute young Stacia was a sailboater at heart, but for a day job, she crewed on a working Alaskan fishing boat. We rushed through customs and caught a cab to the little domestic airport by the canal. We missed the flight by a few minutes.
Plan B: I had made “reservations” at a hostel in town in case we didn’t make our connection. Hilberto dropped us in the middle of a slum, a fact that Mike Z didn't let go unremarked upon. Some mental instable met us at the rusted security door and walked us up the dark stairwell. He stopped on the second floor and started picking the locks on a large steel door. Just then a Dutch backpacker hopped past us headed up the stairs. We wished our little friend luck and followed Hansel.
It was paradise. The hostel was a pleasant happy place with smiley younger euro types who were all about making cheery conversation and generally not doing anything important. It was my kind of place. We had our own room with a fridge. We brought back a bunch of coldies from our exploration of town. I don’t often find a group that is more financially challenged than I but most of these people qualified. I shared some coldies with some appreciative fellow world travelers (good luck in your sailing career Willow).
To get to Bocas we had to get cross town to the smaller airport to take the tiny hopper flight. Once on the island we took a cab to the wharf where a water taxi took us around to the marina via the surf break where we had to first stop and drop a surfer into the lineup. Chuck, who always reminds me of a big, bearded, gravel-voiced Viking, met us at the dock.
Chuck showed us to our new home. Our home was a mess. Mold was everywhere. The fridge had been turned off with food in it and there was a foot of brown liquid in the bottom. There was old smelly bedding and dirty clothing around from some unlucky boatsteader. And then there was a smell, that stood out from the others, which we could not find the source of … at first. It turned out that the freezer, hidden under the settee, had also been turned off a couple months prior. It was half full of what used to be meat.
The deck was a mess but what concerned me was all of the lines and halyards that had been sitting in the tropical sun for what had to have been a couple of years. The headsail was rolled up but the cover and corners still looked good. I hoisted the mainsail. This was the first point when I felt like we might have a problem. The sail was older and borderline brittle. When motorsailing to windward, the mainsail is everything. Motoring with the wind just off the bow, the mainsail keeps the boat moving forward as she plows through swells.
We worked into the evening knocking off just in time to get a late meal from the little marina restaurant. Charky used to run our ad department at the main office in CA. Lured by Chuck and Ann, she headed south and took on the ‘challenges’ of running a bar/restaurant in paradise. Char welcomed us into her place with open arms. It was great to see everyone and get caught up.
I slept great, as I do on boats, but I guess I was the only one. The next morning, around the breakfast table at Charky’s, the crew described the sounds in the night. Seems we would have some friends along for the cruise - cockroaches and a possibly a mouse.
Most skippers that I know would be booking flights home at this point but I wouldn’t be deterred so easily. I emailed the owner my first impressions. I gave him a brief breakdown on the condition of the boat. Also, I wanted him to understand that when the mainsail failed our voyage would quickly as we pulled into the next port. If time allowed, without a main, one could tack around the Caribbean Sea for a month or so and eventually get into Venezuela. But time was an issue for us.
Good news, Chuck tracked down the previous skipper. Richard was a fan of Lats and Atts. He was glad to come down and show us the boat. He was the one that brought the boat down from Annapolis. He made the wonderful carib run through many palm lined islands coasting through clear blue seas arriving in the awesome cruising grounds of Bocas. After years of neglecting the boat, when the boss called and wanted her brought back upwind, Richard jumped ship. He had found a lady in Bocas and decided to move into town where they will live happily ever after on their US pensions.
After lunch I slipped below with a big trashcan, gloves, and a scarf to cover my mouth and nose. I couldn’t possibly ask my crew to clean out the freezer. I had had a couple beers at lunch in preparation. Mike Z implored me to have just one more coldy before facing the demon freezer. I acquiesced. I’ve seen dead bodies but the site of the mini ecosystem combined with the powerful stench was certainly a more memorable experience. Taming a rough sea in an ill prepared boat seamed trivial in comparison.
Day 3: I got the owner on the phone and he gave us the thumbs up to continue and to try and make it as far as we could. And so we fueled, checked out, provisioned and still made it back to the restaurant for Thursday night Tuna steaks. First thing in the morning Stacia and I hopped in the water and cleaned the bottom of the boat while Mike Z finished the prep topside. That afternoon we motored out the pass and finally, out to sea.
I’ll have to submit part dos next month. There were too many good lessons on this one to hack it up to make it fit. Hasta luego.