Friday, May 14, 2010

Transiting the Panama Canal

We are scheduled to transit the canal on Monday and Tuesday (May 17-18th). We will leave between 6:30am and 7:30am (Central Standard Time) from the Balboa Yacht Club and will get to the first set of locks (Miraflores Locks) in about 20 minutes. You can watch us on the Panama Canal webcam for the Miraflores Locks (

We will pass through a second set of locks before entering the lake where we'll stayover for the night. We will then complete our transit on Tuesday passing through the Gatun Locks (webcam again) and into the Caribbean! Our plan is then to stay at the Shelter Bay Marina on Tuesday night, return our extra lines and tires (fenders), and be on our way up the Windward Passage to Providenciales (Provo), Turks & Caicos.

You can track us via the SPOT link ("Follow our bread crumb trail") on the upper right hand corner of the blog.

Until then...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ixtapa, Mexico to Panama City, Panama

Leg: Central America Pacific Coast
Departing: Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Mexico
Arriving: Panama City, Panama
Distance: 1760 nautical miles
Dates: 12 April 2010 – 5 May 2010
# of Days: 23
Crew: Rachel, Karl, Phil

Meeting Sophia
Karl and I arrived in Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo on April 7th and were met at the airport by Phil, Andreas, and Alison (on her way back to Seattle after a week in Mexico). We were anxious to meet Sophia, having only seen her in photographs. It was a bit like an arranged marriage. Karl’s father, Phil, had gone to Mexico to inspect Sophia and do a sea trial, and we moved forward with her purchase without Karl and I ever having seen her in person. Now we were about to meet her for the first time, hoping that a father’s assessment and assurance would match our hopes.

In the days that followed we began to learn about Sophia—crawling in her nooks and crannies, pulling away her handsome exterior to see what lay beneath. One becomes best acquainted with a boat when making repairs, and it seemed there would be plenty of opportunity for us to know Sophia intimately. She has a sturdiness to her that inspires confidence on the sea. Yet some systems were dubious; products of a lack of understanding or initiative, or maybe both. We focused on the projects that were high priority in terms of safety and seaworthiness, and meticulously noted other necessary repairs, however big or small, on a notepad we titled, “Sophia: The Fix It List.” There would be opportunity for some repairs while were we underway and others could wait until we reached another port or received necessary parts.

We left Ixtapa in the afternoon of April 12th. Sophia was laden with fuel, water, and provisions for a planned three-week passage to Panama City. Our route would take us southeast about 250 miles off shore as the coast of Central America bends to the east. We hoped to stop over at Cocos Island (Isla de Coco), a small island about 300 miles from the coast of its parent nation Costa Rica. However, wind and weather would be our guides, ultimately determining whether we would stop at Cocos Island. There were many days and miles to go before we would reach Cocos Island (1100 nm away), and a lot can happen in that time.

Tehuanapecker Winds—or Pacific Molasses
Our first decision was how to traverse Tehuanapec Bay. Known for its high winds and rough seas, this bay is the bain of many cruisers heading south from Mexico. Winds from the Gulf of Mexico pass through a narrow slot in the mountains to the Pacific. The winds are intensified as they squeeze through and blast across Tehuanapec Bay at 40 knots creating a large swell that can carry hundreds of miles off shore. These winds are referred to as the “Tehuanapeckers.” One option is to take the longer route staying close to shore with the hope that the waves are less with a shorter fetch from shore. The other option is to pass well offshore where the high winds do not penetrate. We opted for the latter option as the forecast indicated it was unlikely that high winds would blow from the Gulf of Mexico, therefore the large swell would not develop. We were right. There were no Tehuanapeckers while we crossed the few hundred miles of the large open bay. In fact, there was no wind. Never have we seen such glassy calm water on the Pacific Ocean. Stars reflected in the placid ocean. We witnessed the slow migration of millions of jellyfish as the light penetrated deep into the tranquil blue depths. Turtles would lazily pass in the current, raising their heads to peer yawningly at us. Dolphins would dash towards us from great distances, curious about our presence in an otherwise “empty” ocean. Of course it was not empty of life, but empty of other vessels. We saw the lights of only two ships passing far on the horizon. With each little zephyr we would raise the sails and drift more than sail along. After we had enough bobbing around, we would start the engine for a few hours to make some progress. But it felt slow; time moved like molasses in the warp of Tehuanapec.

Under the sweltering sun we sat sweating. With little to no wind to cool us, we would dump buckets of salt water over us. The water was only slightly cooler than the air temperature. One evening Karl cajoled me into jumping off the boat into the water. The water was deep—6,000 meters deep—and this was quite unsettling when I thought of swimming. Eventually I slowly lowered myself over the side with a snorkeling mask on and looked down. Holy cow! The sunrays penetrated forever but there was nothing else. I scrambled back onto the boat, my heart racing. From then on I decided that the bucket would do for cooling off.

One afternoon sitting in the cockpit I caught a flash of white on the horizon. I casually remarked, “Huh, it sort of looks like a boat in the distance.” I didn’t really believe my own eyes since we hadn’t seen other yachts. As we got closer it appeared to be an overturned boat. Strange 300 miles off shore. Our first thought was that the boat was a diversion set up by pirates. We kept a close eye in all directions for an approaching vessel. As we got closer we could make out the white hull of a 25 foot powerboat with several Boobies sitting on top (or bottom). We cautiously motored closer looking for lines, debris, or dead bodies. Fortunately we did not see any of these things. Instead we saw thousands of fish! We quickly cast our lure and fish on in seconds. We released a few because they were too small, but kept one white fish. Then I hooked a BIG ONE slowly reeled it in to find that it was a shark! It calmly came alongside the boat, but when Karl tried to remove the hook (and not lose his fingers), the shark thrashed around severing the line with the lure still in its mouth.

Under the Skirts of Squalls
The winds finally became more consistent and we could reliably sail for a good part of the day. Not fast, but forward motion. We found that if we skirted squalls, we could boomerang on the higher winds on their edges. If we did it right, we would miss the rain that dampened the wind and us. The squalls also brought lightning, which is an obvious danger on a sailboat with an aluminum mast standing 55 feet high. We made every attempt to avoid these squalls, often steering way off course to stay out of their paths.

Alas, we were not always successful in our attempts and more than once had to prepare as best we could for a potential strike. We stowed our computers (all 4!) in the oven and tried to stay away from the shrouds. One night was particularly challenging. During Karl’s watch (midnight to 3am), a large storm came over with a lot of lightning and high winds. I awoke to flashes of lightning around 2am and asked if he was doing all right. When he said, “I’m not sure yet,” I knew that things were serious. For another hour we were screaming along with reduced sails with flashes of lightning all around us. Fortunately we weren’t seeing any strikes. Since I am not as brave as Karl, when my watch started at 3am we hove to (which essentially means we parked the boat by backwinding the staysail), and I was able to hunker down in the companionway. I’d venture out every 30 minutes to check on everything. We stayed there (actually lost 2 miles) until about 9am when we decided to start sailing again. While the lightning had stopped the wind was still strong and we were screaming along at 7 knots. Bam! Suddenly we had a strike on the fishing pole. A fish was on! Over the course of the next 10 minutes we reeled in 4 decent sized (5 lbs) tuna (we think Albacore). We were very grateful as we were down to pasta, rice, and marinara sauce.

Land Ho! Arrival at Isla de Cocos
This same day brought our first sighting of land in two weeks. We made out the rise of Isla de Coco (Cocos Island) about 8 miles off. Our charts of Cocos Island were quite poor—it was just a circle with no specificity about the coastline, obstructions, or possible bays for anchoring. We did have a waypoint which we hoped indicated a bay good for anchoring. However, when we entered this waypoint on the electronic chart, it appeared about 2.5 miles before the island. We approached cautiously only having our eyes and the depth sounder to warn us of submerged rocks. It turned out that our chart was off in the location of Cocos Island by 2.5 miles, meaning that the waypoint we had was correct and it did in fact mark a safe harbor.

We were met by a Cocos Island Reserve park ranger, who showed us to a mooring bouy (no anchoring on Cocos Island). He looked like Che Gueverra with a beard and camo hat. He asked if we spoke Spanish? Karl said, “Un pequito.” To which he replied (in Spanish), “I don’t speak Spanish very much either.” Che with a sense of humor ☺ We soon learned there was a fee for entry into the reserve, for both us and the boat, on the order of about $225 payable in U.S. dollars. Hay problema! We had only $18 in U.S. money not expecting that we’d need money until we arrived in Panama. Moreover, we had just come from Mexico where we could only get Mexican Pesos. The ranger shook his head and said, “Big problema.” He granted we could stay under “Emergency conditions” because there was a “big storm in the Ocean of the Pacific.” However, we would have limited access to the island, only able to go ashore in the area of the Ranger’s house and we could dive or snorkel unless it was immediately around the boat to “clean the bottom” (wink, wink). Oh, but be careful of the Tiger Sharks (no wink, wink).

Still it was lovely to be a Cocos Island. The bay was gorgeous with caves on one side and waterfalls on the other. We were able to walk on land, although some swaying occurred as our sea legs adjusted to stable ground. And we were able to rinse off in fresh water from the river. Magnifique! After two nights at Cocos Island we decided to carry on to Panama City, still 500+ miles away. But we will return to Cocos Island next time with some cash.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

In Panama City!

We arrived in Panama City yesterday afternoon! It has been an excellent journey so far. Not always easy, never boring, and often awe inspiring. I will be loading photos soon and writing up a summary of our trip, but my battery is low at the moment. And it's a lovely sunset coming on so better to go watch that :-) We will be in Panama City for several days, hoping to transit the canal early to middle of next week. We hope to have our canal transit arrangements finalized tomorrow.

More soon...