You hang around Quepos, Costa Rica, long enough and you’ll hear the stories, you know, the stories about the unseen deadhead logs floating just below the surface or fishing lines that go on for miles and you cross at your peril. I’ve never had to dive on a propeller that’s been turned into a bird’s nest by some unseen fishing line or crab pot, threatening to rip out the sail drive seals, but I’ve seen the evidence in bent up props and shafts here at Pez Vela Marina. I’ve seen enough that we’ve decided to keep the overnight passages to a minimum on our way up to El Salvador, so our 0600 departure from the marina was met with no small amount of passage jitters, never mind the new rig and those pesky perishable skills that remind you that you just might not be at the top of your game.
It seemed the fishing net threat was waiting for us right outside the marina exit. I had just sailed these waters on our friend’s boat a day ago… Nothing, but today, large professional-looking yellow buoys with signs facing away from us were just discernible in the mist as far as I could see with the binoculars, trapping us against the shore. Scuttlebutt has it that you only dare to cross in the middle between two buoys. We decided to run down the line and discover how long whatever this thing is, was. I was determined to cross only if I had to. Eventually I couldn’t see anymore yellow buoys and I crossed the imaginary line. Nothing.
‘Tis a fine morning regardless of the fishing net threats and I redoubled my efforts to sit back and enjoy mobility. What a beautiful country this is and running up the coast is a great way to see it.
The port Volvo, I can’t remember the moniker I gave it but I don’t call it that anymore anyhow, can’t rev any higher than 2,000 rpm and after an hour or so it’s down to 1,500 under load. It still seductively purrs and is silky smooth but ever since the Galapagos run we rely on the starboard Volvo to get us there. We may have to get someone in here who actually knows what he’s doing because all my home remedies have produced nothing. And without any wind our beautiful new rig is just so much decoration.
So as I was saying, we’re coasting up this magnificent mountainous coastline listening to the port engine rpm drop lower and lower when suddenly I’d had enough and just had to switch engines. Back up to six knots and life is good again. The wind was flukey but building and after clearing Point Judas I had dreams of making sail as soon as we turned Escape Velocity a few more degrees to starboard, making a beeline for Bahia Ballena, our anchorage for the night.
That’s when I noticed we were dragging what I thought was a piece of line with a big knot at the end but we’re kind of careful about that sort of thing, but then again, it had been a while since we’ve done this. Turns out to be a 20 ft long 3 inch thick water-logged bamboo trunk wrapped around our rudder. We had to stop to push it off. Don’t know where that came from, but as we closed with Punta Puedra I knew where that white plastic oil bottle, floating on the surface, came from. It’s got to be tied to a fishing line. I coasted over where I imagined the line would be but soon noticed the white bottle chasing after us. I shut down the stbd engine. A somewhat miffed-looking fisherman in a white and sky blue panga came over and started tugging on the heavy red line that disappeared under EV.
When that didn’t work he pulled out a knife and commenced hacking away at the thick line. We were both bouncing up and down in the swell but finally it parted leaving us with a short piece of line and in these conditions I wasn’t going to dive under EV to try to untangle our propeller, so the starboard engine was not available, the POrt engine could barely pull 1,500 rpm, and there was no wind. The engine would occasionally rally toward 1,700 and the mood aboard would brighten and then it would fade and the worried looks were hard to hide. We slowly made our way into Bahia Ballena, tucked in behind a bight of protective land and dropped anchor in 15 ft. just off a cute little town. So it was face-mask, fins, and snorkel for the handy bloke, but where on earth are my trunks? As propeller wraps go I’d guess this was an easy one and I was finished quickly. Still can’t find my trunks.
Marce and I sat on the back porch watching the gathering gloom of darkness while a dazzling light show of lightning strikes arcing off in the distance all around the bay. Not bad for the first day back.
Next we set our sights on Bahia Samara but as usual it didn’t take long for the port engine rpms to fade so we switched to Old Faithful and were soon running at six plus knots. We began to relax. After an hour or so the starboard engine sputtered and abruptly quit. That’s not good. We started up the port engine and limped along while I tore into the usual suspects, but there was a lot of smokey steam in the engine compartment so after I changed the primary and large fuel filters I went over the cooling system. Flushed the raw water hose, checked the raw water impeller, cleaned the raw water strainer, tightened hose clamps and filled the expansion bottle with coolant…lots of coolant. That’s when I noticed a small hose to the heat exchanger that wasn’t at all tight, as a matter of fact it had come adrift. At first it wouldn’t start but I began the air bleeding dance and soon she came back to life and we were back up to six plus knots. I collapsed In the cockpit. Wind would be better.
The approach into Samara Bay is tricky but once in it’s truly beautiful but quite rolly. It was good to put paid to this outing for the day.
Next up was a spot of sailing, our first with the new rig and it was wonderful We dropped sail before entering the circuitous route to anchor behind Isla Capitan, Playa Tamarindo.
We had to stop at Playas del Coco because it’s the last place to check out of Costa Rica on the way north, and in Central America one goes nowhere without a Zarpe. The anchorage features hidden reefs which divide the harbor in two and are only revealed during the ten foot low tide. Another notable feature is the fact that there is no dinghy dock which means a wet landing with all of the only papers that are important to us and while the Port Capitan is an easy walk from the water front, if you can find him in an unmarked building, and Immigration is supposed to be another ten block hike, but Customs is an hour and a half bus journey to Liberia, marked with a sign so tiny if you didn’t already know it was there you’d never notice it, but then again, there aren’t any addresses so what would be the point? We decided to postpone a potentially disastrous dinghy beach landing plus dragging Catnip’s 350lbs up the beach until tomorrow..
Early In the morning I went out on deck and decided on the helpless gringo strategy by pointing at me (the helpless gringo) then I pointed at the shore while a total stranger drove by and he yelled out “just a minute!” Sure enough, he was back a minute later and ferried us to shore where we jumped out in the shallows at the beach. Great people.
Ok Escapees, the drill is to start with the Port Captain and give them lots of paperwork. If successful he’ll give us 12 hrs to leave Costa Rica. Next we go to the Banco Nacional to pay twenty dollars and of course we spent forty minutes waiting in the wrong line but in an hour and a half we were out of there, with the all important receipt, walking up the dusty main road to the unmarked bus stop where after narrowly missing the Liberia bus we stood for another fifty minutes for the next one in the gathering heat and when we paid our 675 Colones we impressed upon the bus driver that he would have to let us off at the Customs. No problema. When we pulled into the bus station in Liberia we knew he had forgotten to let us off at Customs but he seemed contrite and was willing to make amends by showing us to another bus but waiting for an outbound bus was more than we were willing to put up with so we grabbed a cab. How much? No problema, he had a meter…a very fast meter, but soon he pulled up in the middle of nowhere with no signs and announced “Aduana”.
For a change the customs agent was a good guy, but first we had to write a document that gives him the authority to cancel our couple of unused leftover days of temporary repair status. So maybe an hour later we are standing beside a two lane blacktop at what we are told is an unmarked bus stop, with a document that gives us, oddly, 24 hours to leave Costa Rica. It’s hot, really hot, with no shade and we have to read the little haphazardly hand-lettered destination sign in the bus windows as they barrel hellbent towards us. Sadly, we missed the first one with a small “P-Coco” sign. New stragedy: I’ll flag them all down.
One hour later the jerk that forgot to let us off on the first bus pulls over and opens the door, still with that guilty look on his mug. One and a half hours later we’re wandering around Playas del Coco looking for the Immigration building and running out of time. Finally a guy on the street says try down this alley. We were ten feet away from it but of course there was no sign. Ah, Immigration. The fly in the ointment, the small print, the catch-22. First she gathers all the paperwork, out come the stamps and then she says you have three hours to leave Costa Rica! I beg your pardon. Three hours! These are the rules. Marce had had enough. She stormed out of the office. I caught up to her just before she stormed into the Port Captains office. Yes, the Port Captain tells us, this is the rule.
So, dear Escapees, for those of you keeping score it’s 24 hours for Customs, 12 hours for the Port Captain, and effing 3 hours for Immigration. Need I say more? We’re leaving at six am and no she won’t be at her desk at three am, they open at nine so no one can leave Costa Rica until noon, do I have that right?
With Marce fully committed to meltdown mode the skipper took over, depositing her at the Lebanese restaurant for some much-needed sustenance and a time out, and I went hat in hand back to the Immigration office and smiled at the nice immigration lady, my most sincere helpless gringo smile, and I just kept saying 6 o’clock, right? And 6 it was, 12 hours later. Our lips are zipped.
I found Marce in a slightly better mood, but we still had to negotiate the Port Captain’ hoops and deposit all the permission papers with them. I still had to find a way back to Escape Velocity but in just a few moments at the beach, Carlos, another friendly panga driver, said sure and we hopped aboard. Great people these Costa Ricans.
The buzz in Pez Vela wasn’t just about logs and line. As soon as they heard that we were heading up to El Salvador they’d pause, tug on an ear lobe, and give you a strange look. Uhm…Papagayos, they’d say. Turns out the Papagayos are winds that start out in the Carribean due to a high, I think they mean pressure, that causes the Christmas reinforced trade winds that bedeviled us last year, shredded and strained through Costa Rica’s mountainous spine and funneled through any gaps to blast any unwary sailors trying to sneak up the coast to Nicaragua and El Salvador. It didn’t take long before the Papagayos announced themselves with authority. Soon our precautionary double-reefed main sail seemed laughably optimistic and while we could spill most of the wind we could barely make progress against a five foot nasty wind blown chop. Sails dropped nicely, we motored into the teeth of the tempest choosing an inside channel where the venturi effect caused the wind to accelerate even more, but hopefully with a better sea state. We were crawling through the Murcielagos-Pelada passage at 2 knots but on the other side, the chart promised an anchorage called Key Point with at least some protection from the Papagayo and waves.
Finally within 150 ft of the rocky coast we could feel a little less wind pressure and waves. Down went the hook and she held. We looked around and and found an incredibly beautiful spot with islets all around and dozens of Olive Ridley turtles swimming around EV who, when they noticed us, did a double-take and crash dive. Fun to watch, you can almost hear them say, “What the….?” We don’t expect to get much sleep tonight with the Papagayo buffeting the boat every couple of minutes. Maybe I’ll dream of better winds tomorrow.
In the morning the winds were pretty much the same so that means we play another verse of should we stay or should we go, accompanied with the usual total breakdown of our entire communication systems featuring thousands of dollars of semi state-of-the-art gear, and of course many tears and much rending of clothing by Marce, who is now sobbing and lamenting “why is this so hard?!” I don’t know why, I can barely turn this stuff on but we really could use some timely weather info.
We really got our butts kicked yesterday so if it’s all the same to you I’ll just hide here. That’s when the park ranger boat showed up and using Gringlish pantomime I felt that what he was trying to convey was that we should round the dangerous Cape Santa Elena right now. That’s first hand knowledge folks, he just came around himself. We thanked him and rigged for heavy weather. No sooner was the anchor stowed when the relatively light winds piped up again to 35 knots but the Papagayo was blowing us right out of Key Point at 7.5 knots with the motor at an idle. At this point I’m thinking I’ll never look a gift horse in the mouth, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking my god what is it doing out on the Cape. We’re soon to find out ’cause we’re getting spat out of the bay like a watermelon seed on the Fourth of July. Wham, high thirties on the nose, 5 foot steep head seas 4 seconds apart, a frequency that Escape Velocity really seems to like to hobby-horse on, the whole house is shaking, and suddenly we’re barely making 1.5 knots and there is no going back. Time to explain plan B, which is to get out of here. I should tell you the backdrop to this is that this is one gorgeous deep blue sky day, no shredded white clouds racing west across the Papagayo sky. Marce did the maths and announced that if we push on at this speed we might make it to the nearest harbor of refuge by Christmas.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, after four hours of bashing, the conditions seemed to moderate slightly and our speed began to pick up, still uncomfortable but just less ridiculous. I cranked up the port engine when I thought EV could handle a little extra speed without pounding and we turned into beautiful Bahia Santa Elena as the sun dipped below the craggy mountaintops surrounding the bay. Parrots squawked, birds sang, monkeys scampered through the trees. No wind, no waves…Eden.
The following morning M. somehow managed to get the SSB to cough up a GRIB file with a Papagayo report showing bad ju-ju off the coast. Today was declared an R & R day for your humble Escapees. We’re tucked in behind the eastern ridge of mountains, three ketches are anchored a respectful distance away and the surface is as still as Walden Pond. We hear and see green and blue parrots, hawks and the omnipresent vultures. This place is jaw-droppingly beautiful (I promise to work on my superlative adjectives while were back in the states. Hey maybe you Escapees can help us fly back down here with a whole new stack of SA’s.)
So where was I? Oh yes, puttering around the beautiful bay trying to find the path that leads to a waterfall, but it was, wait for it, unmarked, not to mention bushes with 3″ long thorns discouraged much exploring. All in all a fine relaxing day.
With double-reefed mainsail we motored past the sleepy Ketches early in the AM to do battle with our old friend Señor Papagayo, who had not forgotten us, and once again it was the seastate, not the winds, that made life difficult. But we were able to angle across the worst of it and, closing with the shore, we found just enough relief that we knew we could live here while we waited for the promised moderating winds. Sailing became fun again aboard the barco and eight knots were briefly seen on the GPS but not the new speedo because it hasn’t honored us with even a peep, thank you, plug-and-play Raymarine.
As evening approached the wind had dropped to twelve knots giving us a relaxed 6 plus, good stuff, when we suddenly felt EV stop dead. Sails full and by…what the–? Hooked again! I don’t know what happened. I was so angry, I found myself running around yelling orders at the top of my lungs to no one in particular but I fear someone may have taken exception to the skipper’s ranting. So it was our first under pressure emergency sail drop. With all way off EV was wallowing in the sloppy seas but I could at least assess the situation and this time it was a heavy cable with a large white polypropylene bag filled with a dozen incredibly buoyant 2 liter soft drink bottles. So it’s back into the open ocean, with fins, mask and snorkel, for the handy bloke. Ah, success, I’m 2 for 2 doing battle with Central American fishermen, but I still can’t find my trunks.
Now the hard part. I assembled the entire crew and apologized for my outburst…or, as I’m corrected, my meltdown. It was even suggested that next time I should try rotating a few large steel ball bearings in my hand. This may take some time.
The breeze faded with the sun and soon we were content with four knots in six or seven knots of wind. Not bad. The waning moon was late rising, leaving us in the dark with some strange lights to cope with. No radar or AIS targets but we’re a little gun-shy with fishing boats right now. We continued to ghost along at 3.5-4.5 knots.
The breeze didn’t pick up until morning but soon we were back up to speed and with the promise of fading wind as the morning wore on, we felt that while the good breeze blows there’s not a moment to lose. Sure enough by eleven AM the breeze was dead so it was another encore for the Iron Genny. Maybe with a little luck we’ll make our 0530 high tide appointment to follow the pilot panga in a circuitous route over their ever-shifting sandbar into Bahia del Sol, El Salvador.
We made the rendezvous waypoint at exactly the appointed hour but the sunrise seemed late. Other than playing dodge-boat with an old shrimper in the dark the night watches went without incident and Bill answered the VHF right away. The directions were to head west and look for two guys standing up in a panga. I see nothing but mottled grays but I can hear the surf roiling in over the bar at Bahia Del Sol and I am not amused. I guess I was thinking more of something like a secret approach using special local knowledge instead of slam-the-throttles-to-the-fire-wall-and-let’s-surf-this-sucker-over-the-bar approach. I was trying to avoid running Bill’s panga down when I felt EV’s stern start to lift.
Uh-oh, we are not as square to this roller as I would have liked. Full opposite lock and she still wants to broach. It’s a physics lesson now. Finally I could feel the rudders bite and we hang on, I square her up and check for urine puddles.
Ah, we’re good. Bill smiles up at us and says congratulations you’re over the bar at Bahia Del Sol.
Check-in was a breeze and we’ve landed at the start of the major party week of the year, Flor de Cana’s fishing tournament featuring big sportfisher boats and apparently even bigger women. Full report to follow