One Leg, Three Days, Five Countries
We left Marina Chiapas with excitement, fear, and uncertainty. Our new engine was drastically unproven (and really still is). We quickly realized I (Elan) was going to have to adjust the idle down for our over-pitched prop like I had to with the last Perkins. Other than that, the first several hours of motoring was peaceful and uneventful.
Our last sunrise in Mexico
Crashing waves as we exited the breakwater- it was much worse as we towed in without the engine
After the install, I was ready for a break from troubleshooting mechanics, but alas, it wasn’t to be. About 6 hours into the 72 hour trip, Ash heard water sloshing in the bilge. We opened the engine bay to find sea water spraying all over. We had about a foot and a half of water in the bilge (Ash says more). We killed the engine and frantically checked all of the seacocks expecting to find a big leak. Where was the water coming from? I next checked the seawater hoses on the cooling system. Nothing. This is a sink or swim moment here. With my brain racing and Ashley reading the cooling/heat exchanger section of the shop manual, we discovered that the shop we bought the engine from had tightened a clamp right off of an internal fitting on the heat exchanger. Basically this allowed the raw water pump to pump sea water into the fresh water system, which then poured water out of the pressure release and into the engine bay and bilge. To make things worse, with all of that water splashing around, the alternator shorted out AND the manual bilge pump clogged up, so that left the heavy lifting to our electric bilge pumps, draining our batteries without the ability to recharge. We had the genset, but it hadn’t gotten that bad yet (besides its more dramatic to leave that detail out). In short, we had a scary few hours out there trying to decide whether to sail the short path back into Mexico (AGAIN!) or on to Nicaragua. Finally we got the water down to a manageable level, and since we were pretty sure we had pinpointed and fixed the source of the leak, we decided to push on.
After that nervewracking night, things started to look up. The alternator dried out and started pumping in 40 amps (phew!), dolphins started to jump in our wake, and we were making good time. We diligently checked the bilge water level every hour or so for the rest of the trip, and did our best to investigate every little noise, most of which, I’m sure, were in our heads.
Beautiful, stormy sunset
What was supposed to be very calm weather for this trip turned out to be wind and waves on the nose, thunder and lightning, and rain squalls. We can watch these small weather systems approach on radar and do our best to steer around them. For several hours, Ash and Apollo wrapped up in a tarp like a sailorette/puppy burrito to tough out the inevitable downpour during her watch. Lightning can be very cool to watch, but its certainly unnerving when you are the only tall thing bobbing around on a flat sea… Or so we thought.
People have warned us about unlit pangas (small open fishing boats) off the coast of Guatemala, especially at night. They arent required to have any running lights and the saying goes “if you are lucky, you’ll see the glow from the end of the fisherman’s cigarette”. On day two, Ash and I were lazing in the cockpit when out of nowhere a Panga motored by about five feet away and surprised the hell out of us. We hadnt seen them coming, Eek! They are too small to show up predictably on radar and we just didn’t see them at all, despite it being broad daylight. Out in the middle of nowhere some fifteen or twenty miles offshore a little open fishing boat came within feet of us. A similar situation happened the next night, except that one shined a flashlight at us with enough time to steer away. Its a bit scary to think that if they were asleep, not paying attention, or had dead batteries in their flashlights, we could have hurt someone. To add insult to injury, those same pangas are also often setting up long line reefnets, some of which can be miles long, perfect for potentially snagging a prop in the dark.
Anyway, we didnt sink, we didn’t hit any pangas and before we knew it we had sailed right past the rest of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and into Nicaragua.
We had one last challenge coming into Puesta Del Sol, because the tide was running against the bar, but our new engine throttled up fine (despite a sticky cable), took us across the bar, throught the roiling 5 knot current and safely into port. It felt good to make the marina and get a rest.
It was so beautiful there and while there is a bit of comedy in the whole adventure, we were ready for the next uneventful leg of our trip. Sailing is more work than anyone gives it credit. We didn’t like sea water in our bilge (it was a first for us), but really it’s just another day in the life!
Infinity pool at Marina Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua
While at the dock in Puesta del Sol, Elan and I sat eating icecream in the heat of the day, listening to the usual thunder boom in the distance, while out of nowhere, the rain came pouring down in buckets, the wind picked up and the lightning seemed to be coming down all around us. As we scrambled to the boat to tie a bunch of extra docklines, we both about jumped out of our skin when lightning struck very nearby. The crackling, bone-jarring volume of a strike that close is unbelievably loud. The rain was coming down so hard, and with such wind speed that it hurt any exposed skin. I was wearing a cotton skirt with an elastic waistband and the weight of the water that soaked into it pulled my skirt right down! Just one more reason I need to grow some hips, haha.
Almost as suddenly as it started, it was over. We later found out that the close lightning strike actually hit the internet/radio antenna at the top of our dock, only about 4 boat lengths from our boat. Scary! At times like that, Im glad that our mast is a little shorter than most!
Electrical storms are inevitable this time of year in Central America. We fall asleep to the rumbling thunder almost every night. One night I sat up just watching because it was literally like having a constant strobe light outside the boat, for about an hour I don’t think there was more than one second between most of the flashes. So amazing!
As we prepared to leave Nicaragua the next day, we were unable to pull an updated weather report because of the lightning strike that had taken out the wifi antenna. We decided, “no biggie, we have a report that’s only a few days old, it looks clear, and besides, its so beautiful out”. Haaaa, big mistake. You’d have thouht we’ d learned our lesson just the day before when the weather turned on us so fast. How quickly a beautiful sunny day, calm water and a light breeze can lull you into complacency.
Nothing about this leg from Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua to Herradura, Costa Rica was dull. Just out of the marina, I threw out a handline to try my luck at fishing, but made an unfortunate catch: a brown footed boobie. Thats a bird, not a fish. We were able to get the hook out of his beak, and set him afloat. Apollo’s whole opinion on fishing has improved greatly since that squawking, flailing incident. We often find our lures being stalked by boobies who dive out of the air to catch what they think is an extra pretty fish. We can usually scare them off with a shout before they get the ride of their lives. This one wasn’t so lucky.
Elan holding the Brown Footed Boobie with a towel, trying to set him free
We Be Salty
About 5 hours into our 3 day trip, we watched a big, black, thundercloud roll from 16 miles away to on top of us in less than 10 minutes. It brought a wall of rain water, crackling lightning, and howling wind that had our boat heeled way over, even with no sail up. In that situation, all we could do was point the boat in the direction that looked like the quickest way out, hold on, and hope that the lightning wouldnt choose us. It was sort of like having tunnel vision, on three sides it was dark as night but we had that one hopeful patch of light sky ahead of us.
Dark and Stormy – this picture was taken at mid-day!
When the rain first starts to pound down while the waves are still calm it creates such pretty misty peaks and valleys between each wave.
Squalls are scary and intense, but they are a little exciting too. They are fast and furious, and then they are over just as quickly as they began. After about 30 minutes, the squall blew itself out, and we were able to dodge out of the way of the others we saw coming on radar.
However, mother nature wasnt done with us yet.
From southern Nicaragua to Panama, we are sailing through another “Gap Wind” area, like the Tejuanepec, where Caribbean weather systems funnel over the lowest, narrowest areas of land in Central America, picking up speed and building intense waves when they reach the Pacific. Here, they are called Papagallos, and if you have any brain at all, you dont go out when they are blowing. …so there we were, blissfully ignorant to the weather that was building to our East until we were smack in the middle of it. We spent a VERY rough, wet, windy night toughing it out, taking turns resting on the cockpit floor so we’d be close by if the other needed us. Don’t worry Moms, both of us and the dog stay clipped in when its like that!
At day break we decided to head into shore to see if we could find some protection in the lee of the land since Papagallos are an overland wind. We were 16 miles out, and it took us four hours going into steep, confused seas and a headwind to make it a measly 3 miles closer to shore. We had green water coming over our bow, waves constantly splashing into the cockpit and all over us. We hadn’t eaten or slept or gone to the bathroom in what seemed like forever. When we finally made it close enough to shore to find a bit of protection, I literally curled up on a pile of bilge hose on the cockpit floor and slept like a dog. We were exhausted, and had SO much salt caked on our faces, hands, clothes from 24 hours of waves splashing, drying, splashing, drying, splashing. I always thought it looked so unrealistic in movies when they show someone at sea in a storm and you see what looks like a bucket of water getting thrown in the actors face every few minutes, but that could not be more realistic. We had saltwater in our eyes, in our ears, up our noses, and soaked through to our underwear. We gave up on making it to Herradera, Costa Rica and ducked into the first anchorage across the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border we could find. While we loved Nicaragua, we’d already paid all of the check-in/check-out fees, which, thanks to an underhanded official cost us double what it should have, so we wanted to avoid doing that all over again. We found ourselves in beautiful Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica.
No matter how well your boat is set up, weather like we saw takes its toll. When we finally had a chance to catch our breath and survey the damage, we saw that one of the support poles for the wind generator had ripped out of the teak rail; our port lifelines had broken; a shackle from the mains’l had wiggled out; our anchorlight wiring had come undone; our port nav light was dead; our anchor bashed around and bent our pulpit railing; Apollo’s potty pad had been ripped off the deck and lost at sea; and Elan’s wedding ring had slipped off into the abyss. Then there is the water… Oh, the water that makes its way into the boat would blow your mind. Absolutely everything inside the boat was wet: the floors, walls, counters, couch, matresses, the dry food storage area, our clothing… You get the idea. Waves pounding with that much force can move a lot of water through tiny crevices above the waterline with amazing efficiency. Our bilge pumps had a hard time keeping up during the worst of it, and they both eventually clogged, which left us nervously checking bilge water levels for the remainder of the trip.
Beautiful Santa Elena, Costa Rica
Once we settled into Bahia Santa Elena, got some rest, and set things out to dry (right… salt water? dry? I am dreaming!) we realized how lucky we were to have found such an amazing little bay. We had it all to ourselves. Lush, green, layers of misty mountains protected us from the nasty weather blowing outside for two days. We had swarms of colorful fish boiling around our boat; mysterious sounding birds chirping, screeching, cawing each morning and night; spotted rays silently gliding by; loads of butterflies; tons of hermit crabs on the beach, and amazing sunsets both nights. It rained a lot, but we could have cared less, in fact, we loved it’s cooling effect and the fact that it de-salted the outside of boat.
Nice rock formations at the mouth of the bay.
Sunset (or maybe this was sunrise… I don’t remember!)
Both “Dare-Doggin” on the bow of the dinghy.
One of a million hermit crabs
While we waited out the weather, we spent two days cleaning up the boat and repairing what we could. I can tell that I will be de-salting the interior for some time (using our precious little fresh water supply- did I ever mention that our watermaker broke on the same day as our engine blew up? Seemed insignificant at that time, but it puts a huge cramp on our watersupply to have to rely on filling up water in ports), and doing everything I can to keep things from getting mildewy. We also installed not one, but THREE backup bilge pumps, because we agreed that we never wanted to be in a I-wonder-if-my-boat-is-gonna-sink kind of a situation again. My grandpa, Papa, was a great seaman who travelled all over the world’s oceans, and I can remember him saying that “if anything on a boat is going to break, it’s going to break when you need it most”. So true Papa, so true!
A Pit Stop
When we finally left Santa Elena, we headed to Miguel Antonio Park, about 40 hours to the southeast. We finally, FINALLY, got what we desperately needed: a blue sky, glassy water, favorable current, cool sailable breezy trip with NO mechanical issues and no breakage. Thank you God! This is what cruising is supposed to be like! 🙂 We saw some especially acrobatic dolphins and several sea turtles. We were making such good time, that what should have been a 9am arrival to the park was looking like it might be a midnight arrival instead. We figured that if we were going to have to anchor in the dark, we may as do it in Herradura, where Solent is camped out for the month. We made a sketchy anchorage in the bay long enough to have dinner with Lee, pull a fresh weather report and were back on our way by about 4am.
Nice and easy, just the way we like it!
Birds gliding along the surface.
We traveled a few more hours and set anchor in Manuel Antonio Park. It was such a beautiful setting, very Jurasic Park-esk, and we were the only boat there. We ran to shore, tied the dinghy up in the trees, and hiked around the park. Although we were the only boat, we were far from alone, the park was swarming with people, mostly young, American backpackers who arrive by land. We still managed to see lots of iguanas, lizards, birds, raccoons, and monkeys, but the sloths evaded us, sneaky little buggers!
The forbidden fruit… Manzanillo de Playa – toxic!
At anchor in the bay.
We had heard that the anchorage was “like a washing machine”, rolling all night long, but we didn’t care. We were pooped. We were in bed by sunset and still managed to oversleep our alarms to put in a full 12 hours of sleep that night.
The next 24 hours of sailing to were squally and wet, but at least we didn’t break anything this time. We arrived to the small southern Costa Rica town of Golfito this morning to re-fuel, buy groceries, and do laundry (our first real laundry in almost two months – nice!). We will only spent one night here, but we are off to make the most of it at a potluck with a few other cruisers.
Take care & Happy belated Father’s Day to all the Dad’s out there!
Ashley & Elan