CW’s Sailing Adventures

January 29, 2010

Pix - Puerto Madero, Tehuanepec and Huatulco

Lovely Puerto Madero, the southernmost port of Mexico.  Though the harbor was thick with effluent, the people were very nice.  Those are vultures guarding my dinghy (off camera).

You find cozy palapa restaurants all over Mex.  In this little weekend spot all the palapas had swimming pools.  I hope it catches on.

The Tehuanepec, arguably the most dangerous stretch of water south of Cape Flattery.  We crossed unscathed and even enjoyed a light air sunset en route.

Marina Chahue in Huatulco - clean, safe, inexpensive.  Huatulco is my favorite southern port in Mex.  Their tag line is "Where the wood is adored".  It's a long story.  The area has it all from the nice marina, to beachfront dining to the greatest old school town square in nearby La Crucecita - quaint defined.

Who doesn't like an outdoor shower - Chahue.

Leo40 - Puerto Madero to Huatulco (122)

 This is the continuing saga of the great Leopard 40 catamaran delivery – part IV. We are traveling up the Pacific Coast, from Panama to Washington. It's just me and the boat owners – aka 'the kids'. As I left it, we had departed Costa Rica, sailed north off Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatermellon, er, Guatemala. After four days we pulled into Puerto Madero, the southernmost port of Mexico and the last stop before the sprint across the deadly Bahia Tehuanapec.

We motored in behind the big seawall designed for the monster swells that the Tehuanapec often produces. We drifted deep into the s0uth fork, past legions of hard worked fishing boats and anchored off the fuel dock. I launched the dinghy and ripped over to the Capitania del Puerto, identifiable in all Mex ports as a white building with a blue and green stripe along the top. I pulled the dink onto the tourist beach amongst huge black vultures. They were eyeballing me and my bag of trash. The beach was lined with palapa restaurants, most had a cement pool installed. I bet this place was hopping with locals on the weekends.

The port captain was friendly and helpful. He handed me a sheet of paper that described the check in process, in English. A trip to port control and the airport immigration was necessary. And if you didn't read the paper carefully, and make sure you got the correct number of stamps, you would have to go to the airport twice ;). I cruised back to the boat to pick up the kids for our land adventure.

Most Mex ports are on rivers so they flush to the sea. Not Madero; anything the people, the fishing boats and the fish plant dumped in the harbor, mostly stayed in the harbor. And the sludge it produced was impressive. It was a thick brown waxy grease consistency and it coated everything in the south fork. It made it difficult to land the dinghy at the fuel dock stairs without getting slimed.

But land we did and we caught a city cab to the port office to pay a fee to the gracious people there. Then our cab dropped us on the road outside of town to catch a rural cab to the airport. Again, the airport immigration staff was great, but also asked for a few pesos. We made one more trip to the Port Captain for our check out papers. That's right, we intended to get out of there asap. He walked me out to a building around the corner and sat me down at their computer so I could check the weather. It agreed with the wx we were collecting onboard. We had a window that would allow us to get across the bay before the next T-pecker delivered it's 100kt winds and untenable seas.

When we returned to the fuel dock there were two giant fishing boats parked there. As it got later, it looked like they might be spending the night. We loaded the dink with empty fuel jugs to fill ashore and top up the boat tanks by hand. Though the boat only held 90 gallons in two tanks, we had 16 fuel jugs that fit nicely in the bottom of the huge lockers forward. They gave us about another 70 gallons.

Weather looked good and the boat was ready as she was going to get. It was, as they say at doggy baptisms, “Time to cross the bitch.” We raised and rinsed the sludge covered rode. As the sun set, we motored on out. Straight across, it was 225nm, which made it about a day and a half in good weather. But we were going to take the longer route. I had never hugged the shore of the bay before, it's supposed to be safer. But I had never tried to cross her in a catamaran either.

We got out to deep water and set a course parallel to shore. We made great time all night averaging 6-7 knots. We checked the wx often and it continued to look good. The wind came around onto the nose and I decided to start the cut across. As we got into the middle, the swell built to a size we had yet to see on the cat. She bumped, banged and creaked.

I eventually get the question when owners are aboard and it took these two longer than usual but the question did come, “Is the boat safe in these conditions?” I don't build 'em I just drive 'em but I explained that the boat was ocean rated and that this was bay chop and that we were likely to encounter worse seas banging up Baja. She better be able to handle this. It's not my job to sugar coat it. On a delivery, I make sure my crew understands the worst case scenario before we leave port and I encourage them to head ashore if they feel overly concerned.

Heading into the wind on the cat, we had a reefed main and one motor on. We crack off the wind just enough to fill the main. The main gives that extra push to power through the chop. The wind and swell got bad enough that we had to fall off the wind a little more to keep our speed up. We were no longer heading directly for our next port but I figured we'd make it up later … or change ports. Let up it did as we got past the center of the bay and closed on land.

As I came off watch at 0300 she was still a hoppin' and a bangin'. When I awoke with the sun I felt the motion easing. By the time I came up to bring her into port it we were skimming along a flat calm. And you know the feeling of completing a hard fought, peril strewn leg. For me it was quiet elation. Another plus was that we were pulling into one of my favorite Mex ports – Huatulco.  Icing? Dena was flying in to do some Mexican Riviera sailing with us.

Huatulco: “The place where the wood is adored”. I'm not making that up. A big tree in the shape of a cross washed up on shore. They set it upright and worshiped it for hundreds of years. We rolled into Marina Chahue and got parked. The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm and the boat and crew were safe and happy.

Dena had been there since the day before. I tracked her down at her villa. We spent the day between there and the beach – big shower, nap, palapa lunch, swim, nap and dinner at a place on another beach. We then headed over to a Disco Mango with its boom boom machina music which we enjoyed through a mescal haze. After a great day we caught some cable TV and even some news. Looked like the folks back home were still hating each other. We switched over to a good movie.

The next day we moved Dena onboard and lunched with the kids. We hooked up with a crew delivering a catamaran from France to CA. Ralph and his wife deliver catamarans all over. They had Bobbi onboard for entertainment. We all got together and headed into a gem of a pueblo, La Crucecita, for a big Mex dinner. It was fun to compare notes with people that had the same odd life that I did. Ralph and I also had a similar ethic – get the boat there in better shape than she left. Finally, someone I could recommend for the trips I can't do.

And soon it was time to depart. Next stop, Acapulco.
 -Quality, Balance and a Clean Wake- 

January 20, 2010

Leo40 - Golfito to Puerto Madero (121)

 When I left you last, I was moving a Leopard 40 catamaran up the Pacific, from the Canal to Canada with her owners – aka ‘the kids’. We had arrived at Golfito, Costa Rica in the black of night, and taken a mooring off of town. I had never been there. I was excited to get ashore and do some exploring.

We awoke to the wild sounds of howling monkeys and strange birds, and the warm scent of a thriving jungle. Across the water were two establishments. The freshly painted yellow one, I suspected, was Banana Bay Marina. I figured the kids would want to check that place out first. The western saloon looking two-story shack next door was where I’d be headed next.

Ex-pat Bruce runs the mini resort and he gave us the run down of on-site facilities and what to expect from town. Though we felt very welcome, Banana Bay seemed more of a high end fishing marina then a cruiser hangout. But we didn't let that stop us. “Cold beers all around.” And boy were they cold. There was free wifi in the bar/restaurant and a shower in the bathroom.

I found ex-pat Tim next door, proprietor of Land & Sea services, a perfect little cruiser haven. Included in the cost of the 8$ a day mooring was use of the dinghy dock, friendly dogs, an honor cooler stocked chocker with the finest CR brews, a big waterfall shower, BBQ's, a mini shop, cable TV, VHS videos, and decks and lounge areas with pillows, books and magazines. I left a Lats & Atts amongst the piles of sailing rags only to find it gone the next day. I left another.

To get the complete picture of our cruise north you should know that there were a few issues with the boat. Five years of charter company ‘maintenance’ had been hard on her twin Volvo diesels. For starters … we had a gear oil leak to starboard, shifter problems to port, and motor oil leaks and alternator mount failures on both sides. We ran with one motor at sea and kicked on the other to park. We would switch motors every six hours which gave me a chance to tighten or replace the belt and change the starboard engine's diapers. We kept a big stock of the white oil sorbent pads onboard. They'll suck oil right out of bilge water. Buy some! Much of my spare time was spent keeping those motors running.

I headed into town. I had exhausted the search for real Volvo parts in Panama City and had moved on to 'aftermarket'. Five minutes into my walk I found the belts, 6$ a piece. I busted the piggy bank and spent $1.20 on bolts and washers for the redesign of the self-destructing alternator mounts. The bitchin over-the-water machine shop, next to Banana, tooled some parts for me for 3$.

Work done, I embarked on a long trek across town to do the paperwork cha cha. I'm a fan of this side of Costa Rica. As always, it's the people who make the place, and here the people include some very friendly and beautiful Ticas. Not much to do in a little town like Golfito but tend your store and wait for the next cruise ship to come in. Still, the little town was buzzing and there was plenty to see. In the row of seaside shops on my left, an ancient blind woman swept a tiny cafe floor, while across the street, rickety shack homes straddled mini jungle creeks. Up ahead a pack of wild dogs chased kids around the park. Every nook held a story.

After a few days in paradise it was time to get back to sea. We fueled up, grabbed one last Imperial for the road and pointed her toward the entrance. The kids took the wheel while I put away fenders and lines. I looked back as we passed the last nav buoys to see the kids smiling and laughing. Always good to see the crew in high spirits.

We headed south down the long bay with the wind on the nose. We made the 90 degree turn to the west at the entrance and found … the wind on the nose. Cracked off the wind with the main up and one motor we were reduced to about 3kts VMG toward the next waypoint. We could get more speed with both motors but you would think the boat was going to break up, the way she banged. Most of the trip from Panama to Cabo, there is no wind or it's on the nose. It's tough to get quality sailing in while heading northbound.

On monohulls you put up some mainsail in all but flat conditions to keep the rolling to a minimum. On a cat you use it to help drive the boat and to keep the jerky motion to a minimum. And finally we had some wind we could use. With the wind just forward of the beam the cat sailed well. In 12kts apparent we could do 6+. It took two days to get to my favorite CR town – Playas del Coco. This time we motored right by the roadstead anchorage and rolled into the new Marina Papagayo. Can you say super-plush?

In a chilly second-floor corner office we filled out reams of paperwork and were relieved of large amounts of (the boss's) $ to be allowed to stay there. We were assigned our own cute Tika concierge who got us seats on the next van into town. I prefer hot on the outside and cold on the inside so we went down and encouraged the barkeep to open early. We sucked down some coldies in the beautiful open air bar over looking the new, mostly empty, marina.

The van arrived and I grabbed a couple roadies for the long trip into town. I know aircon is popular but I prefer a window open for pictures, the smell of land and the warm natural breeze. And then there's the need to re-acclimate. When cruising, you don't get to spend much time seeing inland parts. We saw ranches and farms and Costa Rican caballeros. The other couple on the van were the Carrs. They arrived in a big new Saleen trawler and were headed to el Carib. John was a fan of Lats & Atts. That is to say he'd heard of the magazine and somehow recognized me (from the cartoon?)

We pulled up to town and all agreed that a beverage was in order. The driver dropped us at Coconuts, a great outdoor bar, stuck in the trees and overlooking the calle primero which was packed with friendly locals and exotic backpackers sorting through Coco's custom crafts. I took a break and headed over to pick out a pareu for my girl and some stogies for the boys back home.

You had to tear us away but the next morning we headed back out to sea. It was a four day motor/sail to Puerto Madero, the southern most port in Mexico and the staging ground for crossing the legendary Tehuanapec – sinker of ships. If you are unlucky enough have a T-pecker kick up, then its hold on for dear life because it can blow 100 knots for days. Our death defying T-pec crossing next month.

I have an announcement! Sheridan House has agreed to publish my first book – Circumnavigating Low Key. It will be out toward the end of the year. I’ll keep you posted. Check them out for other great nautical titles too!

-Quality, Balance and a Clean Wake-

January 17, 2010

Leo40 - Panama Canal to Golfito (120)

When I left you last month I was moving a Leopard 40 catamaran through the Panama canal and up to CA with owners Paul and Sheila (aka the kids), a crew friend of theirs and my crewmate Dena. We spent an incredible glass calm night up in Lake Gatun on the north (Carib) side of the canal. After wine and dinner under the stars we drifted off to sleep.

My watch alarm went off at 0600. Our canal advisor, Roy, hopped aboard at 0615 and I fired up the motors. The sun came up over the jungle as we powered on down the wide, well marked channel. The canal reminds me of cruising the Pacific NW, motoring from green island to green island. Of course Panama is hot and covered in Kudzu instead of Pine trees.

But cruising’s not always calypso and coldies. The extra crewman was up most of the night with severe stomach cramps, which were getting worse. I feared appendicitis and asked the advisor what our options were. He suggested we drop him at the little town of Pedro Miguel. Stop in the canal? Kewl! Paramedics were there and took him off the boat. He made it to the hospital and they started treatment for a stomach infection.

I was down to 3 able crew and we needed 4 for the canal descent. The advisor was very cool to let us continue and he suggested we lock down against the wall. We had read all the cruiser hype about never locking against the wall. Though it’s not a good idea with the locking up turbulence of a filling chamber, it would have been fine locking down.

The kids opted for center tie again and the advisor offered to take the helm so I could catch the fourth line. He seemed a little too excited. Some small print from the canal contract flashed through my head, the part that talked about advisors not being responsible for anything. I kept an eye on him and would take over after cleating my line. The cat was all over the place, without a deep keel and with two motors in tight quarters and turbulent water ... good fun driving. During one of Roy’s short stints at the helm the cat began to veer off toward the hard portside wall. I gave him a calm, “Con cuidado”. The third time I called over to him was more of a yell. He pulled it together and I didn’t have to step in. In his defense, he was answering his cell phone.

Down and out the Pacific side, we dropped Roy onto a speeding tug. After fueling at the Balboa Yacht Club pier we made our way through their mooring field with 2 knots of current sweeping us along the tight gap between boats. Our assigned mooring was right at the end. I spun us around into the current to sneak up to it. Dirt kicked up behind the boat. How is that possible, we drew 3’9”? The kids hooked us up to the ball.

To get a “launcha” to bring you to the long pier you call “Muelle, muelle, muelle (say mway-yay)”. I guess they don’t trust cruiser dinghies in that thick current. In we went to the new Balboa Yacht Club. The kids caught a cab to the hospital to check on their amigo which left Dena and I to toast survival of another transit while sampling BYC coldies.

At 0245 I awoke to my watch alarm. I walked out to the stern where I had the boat pole waiting. It was low low tide and I wanted to know just how much water we had, if any. We had about a foot under the keels. As I drifted back to sleep I hoped the humongous ships, chugging by just 100 yards away, did so slowly.

We were over a week on the BYC mooring. The kids made a couple more trips to the hospital, we searched futilely for Volvo parts and I worked on the (only 4-year old) diesels.
Helpful locals are a key part of cruising. BYC dockmaster Dave keeps a list of local services in his office, stacked above the pier. Ricardo works in the BYC ‘boatyard’. He was also what I call an expediter - a local good guy who knows everyone and everything in the area, speaks a little English and likes helping the yachties. He helped us find almost everything and even got on the phone to tell off the Volvo Panama people when they declined to help us. In contrast there are the not so helpful. Our canal agent tried to collect double the ambulance fees. In the future I’ll use my guy, Enrique Plummer.

Dena’s airline passes had her flying out of Costa Rica. The diesels conspired to keep us from getting her there in time. She got the next best thing, a 16 hour jungle bus ride - kewl. It was our last evening in Balboa. Dena and I went for an evening stroll along the waterfront. It was Martyr’s Day in Panama – a day of mourning for the high school protesters shot by their American occupiers in ‘64. The families walking and playing on the path seemed happy to have the evening together. Electric bikes and trikes shared the path with people and normal bicycles. How come I don’t see those at home? Look, an ice cream cart!

And finally things were running well enough to leave. I’m good for a day or two in a place and then I start wondering what other stuff we’re missing and I just want to get back out there ... with or without the parts we need. It was just the three of us now, the owners and me. I offered to depart at night but the kids thought the morning visibility would be a plus. We had a beautiful tail wind to push us south across the Gulf of Panama.

As timing would have it, it was a pitch black night when we arrived at the bottom of the bay in the thickest part of the traffic. I had set up a watch schedule - 3 hours on, 6 off. The kids had instructions to get me up if they saw a ship. I was summoned and I arrived on deck with ship lights all around us. At the helm were my two crew staring into a blindingly bright radar screen. It was the first time we would have the discussion about not relying on the video game. I eased them away, gave them a minute to regain sight and then showed them how we judge distance and direction visually. I would sleep better knowing they were developing these skills.

We rounded the corner and finally had some north in our course. The downside was the headwind. It had been a long time since I had a cat in open water. Even in the small chop the cat banged surprisingly hard. But it was a short two day passage to our first stop. In my cruises along this coast I had never gone into Golfito and was looking forward to finally checking it out. We arrived in the darkest part of the night. I didn’t wake my crew. We had Charlies Charts - Costa Rica to steer by. I brought her in through the lighted buoys to a mooring off what I thought should be the Banana Bay marina. Pablo got up and hooked us to a ball. I backed down just to be sure it wasn’t a crab pot. She held, we slept. More next month.

 -Quality, Balance and a Clean Wake -

January 16, 2010

Pix - Panama and Costa Rica

Some traffic on the Carib side of the canal.  Yacht Transport to Europe?

Golfito, Costa Rica.  Sounds of monkeys and the smell of the jungle.

Chillin' with my bro's at Land and Sea

Land and Sea, a friend to Cruisers.  Moorings, shower, movies, cold beers, books, overwater deck, bbq, shop and on, for cheap.

On my walk outside of town I discovered what I call the Che' Train.

Fueling at Banana Bay, high end fishing marina.

Wondering where all those fuel jugs went?  This is the starboard side bow locker.  And room for more.

This is the anchorage off of wonderful Playas del Coco - one of my favorite stops in Costa Rica.  This day was bumpy.  It's not usually that bad.  We took a van to Coco from 4 star Marina Papagayo.  It was plush.  This is where Low Key and I anchored for a week in '05 to pull the motor to remove the prop shaft and have it serviced.  I took it to Liberia, 40 miles away.  That's also where Bob Bitchin spent the evening in jail during our cruise in '94 - good times.

Calmly parked in beautiful Marina Papagayo.

The 40' Leopard under sail off Costa Rica.  Goes nice in a light beam breeze.

January 11, 2010

Canal survived

We have headed through the canal and are parked at the Balboa Yacht Club.  Coldies are 1.75.  Need I say more?

Now we wait for crew to arrive.

January 9, 2010

Leo40 - Panama Canal to Lake Gatun (119)

 Hey look, I’m cruising! Well, sort of. I am helping Paul and Sheila move their 40’ Leopard catamaran through the Panama canal and on up to California. Usually I am on a tight delivery schedule -- only stopping for fuel and provisions. These two like to pull in and take some time to enjoy the finer spots.

Our little adventure had finally begun. It was 0330 and we were driving to LAX to catch our early flight to Panama. My trusty crewmember was hanging out the open door of the vehicle hurling her stomach contents onto Pacific Coast Hwy. In her defense, it had only been a few hours since New Years Eve.

We arrived in Panama City that evening and caught a cab to the Marriott. It was in the “business district”. I didn’t see any business going on but there were a lot of casinos. Dena and I chucked our stuff into the beautiful room, grabbed some takeout and locked ourselves in for the night.
First thing in the morning we met the owners over breakfast. We had talked on the phone but you really don’t know what you are going to get until you meet. They seemed very nice. I figured we’d get along just fine. On the other hand, they had brought a friend along to crew.

We all piled into a taxi van for the long trip to the Caribbean side of the canal. The boat was parked at Shelter Bay marina. While Colon is a pretty rough place, Shelter is alone on the other side of the harbor and is pretty plush. We had to stop the van before crossing the canal to let a ship through the locks. It’s amazing to see that much bulk moving up and across land.
The weather was nice, though a little hot, even for me. We finally rolled up and I got my first glimpse of the boat. Big Kitty hadn’t been touched in six months so she was a mess. We had the man-power and so we all got to work. It took us a couple days but the cat finally looked and ran like a boat again.

Their crew guy and I butted heads a few times about how to set the boat up. He was an ASA instructor and knew everything about boating ... except the first rule: There’s only one skipper. He wasn’t going to be there for the hard part of the trip and I don’t think he understood how things get knocked around when boats venture offshore.

Big Kitty was an ex-charter boat and so she had been run hard and put away wet. Mostly, fiberglass boats stand up well to large amounts of abuse but their engines do not. For starters, the starboard motor had a crooked alternator. The mount had been welded askew and the wrong size bolt was installed, both done by the cat yard in FL. Also, red gear oil was seeping up from the Volvo ‘Saildrive’ (a large outboard leg sticking through the bottom of the boat). I had seen that before.

Dena and Sheila scoured the inside of the boat to make it beautiful for us while Paul ran around making canal and other arrangements. He hired a canal agent. With Low Key, in ‘05, I used Enrique Plummer and he was great. The owners wanted Pete Stevens. I was flexible. There were some mis-communications but ol’ Pete got us measured and into the canal in two days.
After work was done, Dena and I would tour the boatyard or walk the grounds to work up a thirst. Coldies from the bar accompanied us into the marina-side pool for a chill down. After that we’d hit the showers. Marina tenants have access to big shower rooms with rock tile floors, glass block enclosures and bronze over-head waterfall fixtures. Then we’d join the others for a nice dinner in the marina restaurant or Dena and Sheila would prepare a big ship-board meal.
And then it was transit day. We made our final preparations. We had acquired some tires, already wrapped in garbage bags from a previous transit. We secured them to the side of Big Kitty for additional protection. We laid out the four rented lines on deck, ready for deployment to canal walls. I fired up the engines and we headed over to ‘the flats’.

There were only a couple boats anchored there when we arrived and I knew why. I steered us over to check out where the Panama Canal Yacht Club used to be. They had bulldozed the legendary club and marina on Jan 1. Some of the outer buildings were still in tact but the club, with it’s boat shaped bar, where the greats of ocean voyaging had always gathered, ceased to exist. It is the end of an era. A moment of silence please ...

Our canal advisor would be aboard soon so I assembled my team to have our canal discussion -- stations, maneuvers and what to expect. The big steel pilot boat roared up and Edwin hopped aboard with a smile. Edwin had me point toward the first locks at slow clip. As the sun set over the lake above we stared in awe as several large ships passed us, close to port.

Finally our ship came in and we slipped in behind her. With no other yachts on the schedule we were going to lock up alone, center tie. Every other time I’ve done the canal we’ve been with other cruising boats. Once we locked up side tied to a tug -- a good way to go. Usually we were rafted to other cruising boats with shared line responsibilities. With center tie we sat in the middle, alone, responsible for all four lines.

The canal guys tossed aboard their monkey fists and dragged our lines back up the walls. They walked us into the first lock and looped our lines over big bollards. We tightened them onboard BK. Through the purple glow of a sun just set, the big steel king kong doors slowly swung shut behind us. A cool breeze dropped down from the lake to add to the chill. There was some nervous chatter from the crew but mostly it was a hollow quiet ... until the roaring sound of churning water echoed through our cold steel chamber.

Locking up is when mistakes are made. The two kinds of water mixing and the filling action make for the roughest part of the transit process. I had warned my team of the dangers of loosing control of their line. I wasn’t worried though, my team was top shelf, and besides ... “It wasn’t my boat, it was the bosses boat!” -- Captain Ron.

As we made our rocky ascent I looked back at Dena working our port aft line. She doesn’t seem to know nervous or concern. She was giddy with excitement. Three times we locked up and finally we were released into Lake Gatun. It was pitch black as Edwin guided us the mile or so to the big mooring bouys, our home for the night.

We were secure in our perch, almost 80’ above sea level. With the crew distracted in dinner prep, I snuck a coldy and ventured forward into the darkness, onto the massive foredeck, to enjoy the black peacefulness of the lake. On the big bouy across the way, there was a cruising boat that was headed the way we had come. Their skipper called over and we exchanged info on our respective sides of the canal ... as cruisers do. More next month ...

-Quality, Balance and a Clean Wake-