Wednesday was a terrific sailing day. We had 10-12 kts of wind and EV frolicked along at 6.5 to 7.5 kts all day long with gentle seas behind us. These are the days you cherish at sea. The boat was happy and we spent the day reading and napping. By 5:30 the wind started building slightly and boat speed exceeded 8 kts, still comfortable but with night approaching we made the decision to drop the jib and continue overnight under reefed main alone.
After the jib was secured and we were back on course, we still made 5.5 to 6 kts in 12 kts of wind with following seas and we looked forward to a gentle overnight sail. Jack rustled up dinner, cauliflower and potato curry cooked while we were still at anchor in Bahia del Sol, with rice we cooked yesterday. It was an easy meal prep for the skipper.
My night watch starts at 7pm, just as the sun sets. We continued to make good time but by about 11pm the wind slowly dropped. By change of watch at 1am the wind was down to 6-7 kts and EV was moving at a strolling pace. We could have used the jib right then but it’s our policy to keep the crew off the foredeck at night unless it’s an emergency so we left it ’til morning and Jack settled in for his quiet 1am to 7am watch.
This morning we raised the jib and altered course more westward to stay in the 10 kt breeze we have now because it looks like the wind dies further south. We’ve seen no ships since Sunday. We’ve been adopted by several large seabirds we can’t identify and consequently the dinghy is starting to look like a guano island. Can someone check the going rate for nitrates? We might have a goldmine here. We ate a fresh pineapple for breakfast — bought at Super Selectos in San Salvador — along with some zucchini bread baked and frozen in Bahia del Sol a week or so ago. There’s a pot of fresh Guatamalan coffee in the galley to keep us awake during the day. Now it’s back to my book.
It started out innocently enough. Maybe we were lulled into the classic impression the sea tends to give, that the way it is now is the way it’s going to be. Even though you know that the sea is constantly shifting, stretching and snapping back, if it’s nice you start to do the maths to destination as if nothing might intercede to gum-up the works. The first monkey wrench started around four in the morning when the breeze began to pick up and seemed to be steady and maybe even filling in. I turned off the engine. We’d been using far too much fuel during the lulls to try to outdistance the reach of the nasty Papagayo winds that we tangled with on the way up to El Salvador and the Tehuanapec out of the north. The nasty confused sea state was evidence of high winds somewhere but we were becalmed for twenty four hours straight.
So as I was saying, I eased the jib sheet and switched off the Volvo, experiencing my favorite moment in sailing… no motor. It must be said that my second favorite moment is when the engine starts because if I’m starting it I really need it. I noted that we could use some main sail but that can wait until Marce gets up. We’re already making 4 kts under jib alone in a steadily building sea but only six knots of wind. We raise the main with two reefs in and settle down to a fine day of sailing. I admit that the building breeze kind of sneaked up on us and with the lumpy cross seas we turned Escape Velocity once more up into the freshening wind and rolled up some more main, what we call triple reefed. Forcing her bow back down wind we were rewarded with a calmer more controlled path over, through and around the huge Pacific swells. We even went wing and wing with the jib out to windward and the main to leeward which we know EV likes.
By afternoon those swells matriculated into steep white caps from several charming directions at once so another sail change was called for. With the wind still mostly 16-18 but occasionally gusting to 24 it was time for a serious reduction in yardage aloft. We often run with just the blade-like jib up and no main but with this sea state and breeze, we turned EV up into the wind again, dropped the jib altogether, and rolled up even more mainsail right down to the Manta logo, leaving not much more than a hankie aloft. We settled down for a evening of lurching, pounding, and scary noises, not from the rig but from the seas banging below.
Marce had to stand watch inside and after a few hours she needed to go below with mal-de-mar rearing its ugly head again. I could hear all the dishes and pots and pans rattling around and a pencil rolling back and forth on the navigation desk. It would take too much energy to go in and stop it. The steep waves slapped and banged against the bridge deck. I could hear that pencil reach the end of its roll. We’d done all we could, now it’s just a matter of grin and bear with the roller coaster ride. At about 0200 M. poked her head out of the saloon and said, “Is everything alright? From down below it sounds like a bar fight is going on.”
Meanwhile, EV was just cooking along at 6 kts, steady as you please.
After motoring for a full 24 hours in zero wind we finally have a breath of air and we’re making 2.5 to 3 kts but in flat seas which my stomach appreciates. If it weren’t for our extremely low speed we’d be completely delighted with the conditions. We haven’t seen a ship since Sunday and only three all told and they were all container ships heading south, presumably to the canal.
Jack has already zoomed through a big fat paperback. I couldn’t read because of being seasick but I listened to the Joshua Slocum classic “Sailing Alone Around the World.” I’d read it years ago before we were ocean voyagers ourselves and now that we’ve experienced some of what he did 120 years ago I have a new appreciation for his eloquent thoughts on the sea, sailing, and travel in general.
Today looks to be another beautiful day and we hope for a little more breeze.
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Bill told us to head out to the bar on our own Saturday morning and to be out there at 8 am. We were moseying along when Bill came over the radio. “Don’t waste time getting out there,” he said. “You know how far to go.” We did.
Jack took us back through the steep swell and I kept looking behind us for Bill and the pilot. We got right up to the line of breakers before we stopped, and we could see the four sailboats on the other side, waiting to come in. It would be a tough job getting us out and them in all at slack high tide.
Finally the pilot boat came up behind us and Bill told us to wait where we are and let the set of breakers pass. Then we heard, “OK, full throttle right now” and Jack gunned both engines and we motored toward the slightly flat water where the breakers had been moments ago. “Don’t slow down until you’re sure you’re out!” called Bill just as we passed the first of the sailboats and thought we might be well clear.
We kept going and I turned and blew a kiss to Bill, who’s been our caretaker and along with Jean, our personal Salvadoran Wikipedia, and our friends. When we were sure we’d reached escape velocity from the warm tentacles of our Bahia del Sol interlude Jack throttled back and we were on our way.
It was windless and calm for a couple of hours, then a beautiful breeze filled in and we raised the full jib and reefed main and settled in. By mid-day the sea state was getting choppy and even though the wind wasn’t very strong the seas made life aboard uncomfortable and we put another reef in the main for a smoother ride. That lasted only a few hours when the wind died completely and we had to motor overnight. The pattern continued the next day, reasonably good wind but choppy seas during the day, no wind overnight. Plus we seem to be in an adverse current, despite our chart work and route planning before we left.
Mal de mer hit me like a ton of bricks for the first time in a few years and I was nearly incapacitated Sunday. Jack took the first couple of hours of my night watch until I recovered enough to move about without throwing up. And while we were taking in the mainsail we were pooped by a rogue wave, fully dousing me and filling the cockpit with seawater. Our long-anticipated passage has not had the perfect start. We’re crossing our fingers that the seas settle down and that we get a fair wind soon. I imagine we’ll have a little of everything before this trip is over.
Tick tock. Our French Polynesia visa starts April first. We told our Tahiti bond agents we will arrive about April 15. As the days go by those dates look more and more unachievable. We expected to be the welcoming committee in the Marquesas for our friends transiting the Panama Canal this season and here they are all through, and some even in the Galapagos already. What in heaven’s name is the holdup?
We told Bill and Jean, the unofficial cruising station hosts, that we wanted to leave Monday the 9th. They organized a going away celebration for us at the weekly potluck at Lin and Lou’s.
Monday slipped into Tuesday, then Wednesday as we ticked the items off our long to-do list. There was provisioning to do, meals to cook for our first week out, last minute troubleshooting on our port engine, and a final hiccup with changing our cruising grounds designation with the insurance company, which got worked out but only after hours of stress.
Leaving the Bahia del Sol estuary involves a bash through the breakers over the river bar and must be timed to high tide and general surf conditions. The high tide gets later and later ever day until right now it’s just at nightfall. We aren’t crazy about starting a long passage with a night watch on a coastline with a lot of fishing lines and nets, so we adjusted again to go out with the Thursday morning high tide at dawn.
We got up at 5am, stowed what needed to be stowed, battened the hatches and portlights for the wet exit over the bar and made our last ceremonial walk up to the port captain’s office to check out of El Salvador. Latin American countries love triplicate forms and rubber stamps and it took a little while to get all the paperwork completed but it was all done with smiles and friendly handshakes.
Back at the dock our new friends had roused themselves to give us a warm send-off. And then we were off. Jack piloted us out toward the entrance in larger and larger swells as I lurched back and forth on deck unaccustomed to being on a boat underway, stowing the fenders and docklines. We won’t need them for a long time.
By the time I got back to the safety of the cockpit and looked around I could see the solid line of breakers we had to go through. The pilot boat went over the swells nearly vertically; Escape Velocity handled them well in Jack’s competent hands. But as we got closer and closer to the breakers, Bill and the pilot said to stop and we’ll wait for a break in the surf. We watched the pattern for minutes, rising and falling in the steep swell, feeling over and over again that first steep drop of a roller coaster. I was glad I thought to take a seasickness pill when I got up.
There were two rows of breakers and we were looking for a moment when there was at least 20 seconds between the first and the second to give us time to get over both. They were close together and never more than ten seconds apart. We watched and waited, rising and falling, rising and falling.
Finally Bill came over the radio and asked did we want to wait or go back. We could hear in his voice that waiting wasn’t going to change the conditions. Jack said go back. Even that was easier said than done, because with the high swell we couldn’t just turn around or we’d be beam to the seas and in danger of broaching. Bill suggested backing up, which we did until there was enough flat water between swells to pivot the boat and head back in. We surfed a little over the swells until we were back in calm water and motored back into port.
I couldn’t bear the thought of digging out the fenders and docklines again so I suggested we drop the anchor instead and spend our waiting time on the hook. We didn’t know if it would be 12 hours or a few days. The port captain called and requested Jack return to the office. Once they check you out, they actually want you to leave. Go figure. Bill stopped by in his panga and shrugged. You just never know until you get out there, he said. He thinks the conditions will be the same tomorrow. My heart sank. We’re the first boat since we’ve been here that had to turn back and wait for another opportunity to exit the estuary. We’ve said many goodbyes to boats over the last few weeks. None of them came back.
Jack made peace with the port captain and I lay down on the mezzanine seat and promptly fell asleep. The busy, stressful week of preparations finally caught up with me — that and my non-drowsy seasickness pill — and I slept for seven hours until Jack roused me with a glass of passionfruit juice and a warning that I wouldn’t get to sleep tonight.
This is the essence of cruising. Nature nearly always throws a monkeywrench in any mortal plans you make. We go when the wind and the waves let us. Or in this case, when the surf over the bar will let us out.
It’s the night before the longest passage we’ll ever make and there’s really not enough time to even reflect on this stress filled, forced intermezzo. I say forced because events seemed to stack up against us like those famous Vietnam dominoes, dictating what we could reasonably do and what we could not reasonably do. As we droned on toward Costa Rica, still on our slow motion rescue, we dreamed of traveling to Peru, learning to scuba dive and visiting the natural parks of Costa Rica while waiting for our new rig to arrive, you know, that lemons to lemonade thing. Instead we spent ninety percent of our time trying to avoid being thrown out of Costa Rica, courtesy of the Dragon Lady of Golfito Customs, and fielding endless arcane questions from our rigger about, oddly enough, our new rig.
I’m sure you remember Robert the dour Hungarian mechanic who lives in Golfito and was the first to lay his hands on several ailing systems forced to do the heavy lifting of getting us to the continent without sails or rig. He never even got the chance to work on our port Volvo; after all it ran, just not so well. The starboard alternator cooked the battery bank on the way back from the Galapagoes causing a lot of expense, and a car rental, and a trip to the EZGO golf cart factory in San Jose for six new batteries, and much frustration. You see how this works? One domino falls which causes you agro so you react and push back causing another domino to fall and before long what have you? Why, world communist domination, that’s what!
So as I was saying Robert even got the generator purring back in Gulfito while I came up with the master plan which eventually required a trip back to the states, and like so many master plans it required three mules carrying parts back to El Salvador and was just wrapped-up today in what we hope is the ultimate fix and it seems finally willing to turn decent RPMs for longer than one hour at a time. Our buddy George Huffman, That Boat Guy, patiently guided us through the diagnostic steps and it looks like bad Galapagos fuel was the culprit clogging the port fuel pick-up.
Escape Velocity sports new custom air filters, new high capacity fuel filters with vacuum gauges, a completely rebuilt Spectra water-maker, a new suite of navigation instruments, and even a fuel polishing system and stereo/media center. Almost all of this we designed and built while under some of the most difficult and frustrating conditions imaginable.
None of this could have happened without the cheerful help of Bill and Jean whose advice never steered us wrong, and the many friends who helped us in so many ways. Expats Lou and Lin hosted us every Sunday for potluck at their poolside estate, a long dinghy run far up the estuary, and to tell the truth it was mostly their pot but our great good luck to count them as friends. Lou loaned me tools, taxied us all over the place, and even took us to his favorite pupusa hut near San Salvador for the local specialty.
The Sunday pool parties have an ever-changing cast of characters as boats come and go, and every new arrival became a friend.
Even the fabulously stylish Judy started cooking vegetarian dishes so that Marce could have something new to eat every Sunday. Great people.
So as I was saying, tomorrow morning we face the breakers at the entrance to the estuary we’ve been anchored in for four months. Some people slip right over barely noticing and others like Albatros, a large Nordhaven motor yacht, come very close to rolling over coming in. We’re hoping for a smooth one and 3,400 nm of peaceful Pacific Ocean. Stay tuned.
We never planned on Antigua but when we decided last week on our last minute road trip, every cruiser in Bahia said it was not to be missed. It’s a very European town that reminds me of Rome, where strolling down any street rewards you with a beautiful church or inviting cafe. It should be savored over weeks or months, not in a guerrilla strike. But we’re so glad we got to see it. The visual beauty was a sight for sore eyes.
I’ll admit it, we had trouble tearing ourselves away from Copan Ruinas. After all, it shares the same valley with the amazing Mayan ruins; as a matter of fact it’s not far to walk or just hop in a tiny three wheeled tuk-tuk. Google Maps says it’s only a four and a half hour drive to Antigua so we were up for a spot of exploring on foot. We mercifully left the Little White Cube parked in the hotel courtyard figuring we could play until one o’clock and still get to Antigua before the Cube turns into a pumpkin with the dark. What a great town but we really didn’t want to get caught driving in the dark and the map looked like it snaked over some serious mountains.
It didn’t take long before the familiar pattern returned…SPEED BUMP! BAM…meep meeeep. I guess the horn didn’t fix itself over night. We were not returning by the same route but so far we’re making good time on decent roads.
It didn’t take long before we crossed into Guatemala and began to climb up into the mountains. Suddenly the pavement dropped out from under us and it was dirt and rocks with maybe a 15 mph top speed. M said this can’t be the right road and it really did look like it was petering-out on us but this is Central America and the pavement tends to come and go with no rhyme or reason. Google suggested three routes over the mountains and this one was the fastest and the shortest so I was inclined to persevere. Then we started seeing tour buses coming down the mountain loaded with luggage piled on the dusty roofs and I knew this had to be the pass road. I fully expected the pavement to reappear. It didn’t. Not by a long shot. Hour after hour we bounced along over the rocks, ruts, and choking dust, realizing that hope of an early arrival was fading fast.
Finally the Guatemalans must have found some asphalt and my first thought was we’d better make it count because we don’t know how long this will last SPEED BUMP! Bam…meep meeeep. Very funny. Other than the occasional grizzly looking accident we did well but could not overcome the hours spent at 15 mph in the mountains. As dusk set over Guatemala City we got real serious about our options and didn’t like any of them so we locked our doors and entered rush hour gridlock traffic at night, Guatemala style. No lines, no movement, in a sea of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles. Right in front if us two guys weaving around the stopped cars on motorcycles started banging on a woman’s side window motioning for her to wind it down. She wisely declined. Hour after hour we crept through Guatemala City in the dark, violating rule number one, I believe. Like all bad scrapes, if you live through it, things will get better.
We entered Antigua in the dark but couldn’t help but notice the cobbled streets which jostled our tired brains like a car full of bobble-heads. Tuk-tuks, cars, and people were everywhere. M had done a lot of research but found she couldn’t book a hotel room online so we were on our own. We stashed the LWC and started to do an on foot search for two nights in this beautiful colonial city. It was getting late and the best we could find was one night at Casa Rustico and the second at Casa Antigua with a tri-fecta of the LWC stashed in an off-street car parque across town. On the way back to where we thought tonight’s hotel was we realized that we were totally lost and with all our luggage we looked more like pack-mules than people.
Marce sat down on the curb and said she could go no farther. The problem was that we had one of those brochure “maps” showing street names but there were virtually no street signs so when we’d happen upon the ruins of a church, well which church? With the help of some kind random strangers I found our place in the world and with bells ringing all over the town, lugged our stuff to our hotel. M collapsed on the bed and announced that she would need to be fed from this position.
Back out on the street I found out what all the ringing bells meant. It was closing time in Antigua. I came back with Pringles — she likes Pringles and they’re apparently available the world over — some cheese preenas and a juice box. No bonus points for your long suffering skipper. On the plus side M, the wizard, found a month old David Letterman, in English, on our room Television. I can’t remember anything except the animal guy was a guest and he brought a snake on the show and David doesn’t like snakes. I remembered all the carved snakes and monsters in Copan, and then it was lights out for Yr. Humbl Svt.