Voyage of Traveler / Blog

May 8, 2010

Traveler Postcard From Costa Rica

Traveler Postcard From Costa Rica
April 2010


Passage from Panama City to Golfito, Costa Rica.
What a nightmare.  It started out okay, just Brian and me, cruising along.  We knew the anchor windlass had corrosion and needed repair, but everything else seemed to be working. And then the engine started to sound bad.
We have had so many problems with the engine.  A few months ago my sister said to me, “Don’t you wish you could just go for three months or so with no engine problems?”  I replied, “Three months?  I’d be happy with just three consecutive days with no problems!”
I opened the engine hatch to see what was the problem and water was spraying all over everything, including me.  Also, there was a ton of smoke coming from the engine compartment when I opened the door.  I immediately shut the engine down.  It turns out there were two, unrelated problems.  The first was relatively minor: a broken hose clamp.  But it was for a hose that was not easily reached to make the change (I have several spare hose clamps, all sizes.)  The turbo, air filter and the exhaust manifold would first need to be removed just to reach the hose clamp, making it about a two hour job.
The other problem was an exhaust leak, again.  This is the third time we have had this same problem.  One of the three bolts connecting the exhaust elbow to the turbo sheered off from weight and vibration of the elbow allowing raw exhaust to circulate in the engine compartment, with fine, gritty, oily particles.  This soot was then sucked up by the air intake and put back into the engine.  That makes a big problem even worse.  The air cleaner, turbo, exhaust elbow and the inner cooler were all filthy dirty–inside and out–and needed to be removed, cleaned and reinstalled. This was much more than I could do by myself while at sea.  I needed a mechanic and a workshop.  This means sailing the rest of the way in very light wind.  A two day trip turned into four days at sea, bobbing around.
In calm conditions, we lowered the dinghy from the davits and put the outboard engine on it, then side-tied the dinghy to tow Traveler, at 3 knots.  This worked well, but we didn’t have enough gasoline to get us all the way to Golfito.  We stopped the dinghy side tow with a gallon of gas in reserve to help us get the last few miles into the port.  I managed, with great effort, to replace the hose clamp, a filthy job because everything I touched in the engine room was covered in oily soot.  We decided to run the engine with the exhaust leak, at low speed, just to get into the port.  We didn’t want to spend another night bobbing around, drifting in the currents, with no wind.  We finally made it into Golfito, just before dark.  The cold cervezas at the bar of the Banana Bay Marina tasted muy delicioso.

Golfito: Engine repairs and sport fishing.
We were in Golfito for eight days, much of it spent just waiting our turn for the only mechanic to start work on Traveler.
While waiting, we met and made friends with Dan Murphy from Texas on his sportfishing boat (I think it was a 50ft. Hatteras) called the “Last Stall” (he also raises horses.)  We also met his captain, John Teal and crew, Willy.  They invited Brian and me to go out fishing with them.  After about an hour, I caught a nice mahi mahi, then nothing else was caught for more than two hours.  I felt badly because I wanted everyone to catch something, and we were really hopping for a bill fish.  Then, “Hook up!”  It was Brian’s turn, and after a 20 minute fight he reeled in a 110 lbs. beautiful sailfish!  We were using barbless circle hooks and so we were able to cleanly release the fish, which is great.  Then, within just a few minutes after that “Hook up!” again, and it was my turn.  Another sailfish!  We all saw it jump and dance across the water.  What a thrill.  After a fight of about 20 minutes, I brought the fish to the boat and we successfully released it (after getting a couple of photos.)  Mine was a 120 pounder.  Next, big Willy brought in and released a 140 pound sailfish.  (The weights were estimated by the captain.)  We also caught two more mahi mahis.  What a great day.  Since it was the first sailfish for both Brian and me, on the way back to the marina we were pushed overboard, as is the tradition. The swim felt great.
We finally got all the engine repairs done, including the anchor windlass repaired, then filled the fuel tank and water tanks, and departed for Quepos in the middle of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

Quepos and Manuel Antonio.
We arrived at the new Marina Pez Vela (Spanish for sailfish) at dawn.  The marina has been under construction for 10(!) years, including planning and permits, and it is so close to being finished and ready for business that they decided to allow us to tie up.  We were the first cruising sailboat to stay at the new marina, the biggest in Central America.  I had breakfast with Harold, the owner, and Glen, the sales manager.  Harold told me all about what it is like to build a first class, American-style marina in Costa Rica–not easy!
That night we had dinner at El Avion in the upscale beach resort town of Manuel Antonio. The restaurant’s bar is constructed in the body of a 1954 Fairchild C-123 cargo plane, affectionately known as “Ollie’s Folly” (after Col. Oliver North.) The plane was used by the CIA in the 80s for the Nicaraguan Contras, then it was abandoned at the airport in San Jose after the scandal broke the news.
We stopped here primarily to see Costa Rica’s most popular National Park: Manuel Antonio, named after a banana freighter that sank there.  We hired a private guide who had a telescope on a tripod to help see the wildlife, and he was great at spotting the animals.  We saw a few three-toed tree sloths, an amazing animal that moves very slowly and sleeps 20 hours a day–just like Brian.  We also saw a toucan, iguanas, howler monkeys and white-faced campuchion monkeys.
After the park tour, we met up with Dave and Evelyn, a couple of ex-pats from the South Bay, who are good friends of Bill and Marsha Horsfall (our guests on the Panama Canal) and acquaintances of Barbara.  We visited with them for a few hours at their spectacular oceanfront home, much of that time sitting in the Jacuzzi with howler monkeys overhead, drinking beers and taking turns telling stories about each of our travels around the world.

Papagayo and Playa de Coco.
After a couple of nights at Quepos, we motor-sailed up the coast to Papagayo and anchored off the marina after taking on fuel.  We met and had dinner with Brian and Teri from Newport Beach (friends of my good friend Dick Higbie) who, coincidentally, were there on their trawler named Traveller.
We then motored a few miles to Playa de Coco, a port of entry, to clear out.  The process was unnecessarily complicated and time consuming, and a huge run around.  It took a total of five hours over two days!  While here we went on an ATV guided tour of the jungle and ranch land, which was great fun.  Among the many animals we saw was a boa constrictor in a small creek we crossed. We also took a zip-line canopy tour, which was a blast.
During the night a storm came in with heavy rain, so we decided to stay ashore in a hotel.  The next morning as we were departing, a couple of local fisherman motored out in a 20 ft. ponga to tell me that Traveler had dragged and then swung on its anchor during the storm and smashed into his bigger fishing boat that was on a mooring a couple of hundred feet away from us.   Traveler broke a couple of windows on the fishing boat.  The fisherman asked for $100 in compensation, which I thought was very reasonable and quickly paid, with apologies.  There was some minor damage to Traveler from the collision, really more of a fender-bender.

Check out the photos of our wonderful visit to Costa Rica on the website:

The next Postcard will be from Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador.

Viviendo el sueno,
Michael with Brian

April 19, 2010

Traveler Postcard From Panama Canal

April 8 and 9
Panama Canal

What a contrast between our two days transiting the Panama Canal, and what an exciting and wonderful experience.  On board Traveler were Barbara and her two longtime friends and our guests, Marsha and Bill Horsfall (he is 87 and this was one of his Bucket List things to do), Brian, two professional line handlers and a Panama Canal Authority Advisor (same as a pilot for ships, but if the boat is under 65 ft. they’re called advisors and get less pay.)

Day One.  On the Atlantic side, at the Shelter Bay Marina, there was some confusion about the meeting time and place for our line handlers to come to the boat.  They were supposed to meet us at the marina, but an hour after the appointed time and when they were very late, I checked my cell phone and saw I missed a call.  It was from our agent to say the meeting place was changed at the last minute.  So now we were behind schedule, and if you are late for your transit appointment the Panama Canal Authority fines you $1,500!  With the two line handlers on board along with our ten rented truck tires, wrapped in plastic so the top sides don’t get scuffed, hung in place as added fenders (very much needed!), we got to the meeting place for the advisor just with 15 minutes to spare, only to find out he was running late (no fine if he is late), and so our appointment to transit was pushed back from 4 pm to 5:30 pm.  Hurry up and wait.

To transit the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which is generally a north to south direction, four miles south of Colon there are three consecutive up-locks called the Gatun Locks.  After that you motor across a huge lake, Lake Gatun, for about 30 miles, passing ships going the other direction along the way.  Then there is one down-lock, called the Pedro Miguel Lock, followed by the relatively small Pedro Miguel Lake.  Finally, there are two consecutive down-locks called the Miraflores Locks, after which you are at sea level on the Pacific side.  Each lock lifts or lowers about 25 ft., so the large lake in the middle is 75 ft. above sea level.  If you get a very early start, like 5 or 6 am, you can make it all the way through in one day during daylight.  Because of our late afternoon starting time, ours was a two-day transit.

As we were about to enter the first lock, the PC Authority instructed our advisor via radio, along with the advisors on two other yacht, to raft together, with the biggest boat, a 46 ft. Bertram sportfishing boat, in the center. While the line handlers on the Bertram (obviously not pros and drinking beers) were rigging spring lines between the boats, they screwed it up and took 15 minutes to do a job that should have taken just three or four minutes.  During that time, the wind pushed us slowly into the path of a ship that was underway at about 4 knots and moving into final position in the lock.  The ship was unable to turn or stop.  And because we were side tied to the Bertram we could do nothing to get Traveler out of the way of the ship. The ship blasted its very loud horn five times, which is the signal for, essentially, “I can do nothing to avoid the impending collision between my ship and your small boat, and so you must either move out of the way immediately or brace for collision.”  You can only imagine the stress I was having.  It was a very close call, but the guys on the Bertram got their act together (with instructional help in Spanish from our pro line handlers) and managed to move Traveler, the small yacht on the other side and themselves out of the ship’s path.  After that, the guys in the Bertram were needlessly heavy on their throttles, both forward and reverse, nearly causing the deck cleats on their boat to rip out. I found out later the owner of the Bertram was not on board and this was a delivery crew.  Even though we were side tied and basically being towed by the Bertram, to ease the strain on the lines, I was at the helm with the advisor giving near constant instructions: “Forward just a bit, that’s good, now reverse a little. Stop. Turn to port a little, that’s good.”  He was also giving instructions in English (to Brian and Barbara) and Spanish to our line handlers: “Take up the slack on the port side stern.  Keep the tension steady and even on both sides.”  After an hour and a half or so, we made it through the third lock well after sunset.  As planned, we took a nearby mooring on Lake Gatun for the night.

Day Two: The next morning, a new advisor was ferried out to our boat at 0600 and we were underway before the sun came up.  After a light rain shower of 15 minutes, we had a beautiful day.  Shipping traffic was relatively light that day.  We passed, as I recall, about ten ships going the other way as we crossed the lake and went through the Gaillard Cut, named after the chief engineer responsible for the most challenging part of the canal’s construction.

A little history note: In the late 1800s the French tried to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama.  But they ran into construction difficulties, workers were dropping like flies from illness and then they ran out of money.  A few years later, with the clandestine help of the US government, the State of Panama declared their independence from Colombia to form their own country.  The first formal act of the new Panamanian Government was to sign a treaty with the US giving us the canal zone and the right to construct, own and operate the canal.  From 1908 to 1914, under the leadership of President Teddy Roosevelt, the US built the Panama Canal, at the same time both separating two continents and joining two oceans.  But it was not easy.  Altogether, ten thousand people died building the canal, most of them while laboring in the Gaillard Cut through the mountain range.  Many of the deaths were from industrial accidents, but most were from malaria or yellow fever.  One of the French laborers who was hospitalized with yellow fever and nearly died was Paul Gauguin, then in his early 20s. He recovered from his illness and went on to become one of the world’s greatest artists. I have one of his paintings on Traveler, “Tahitian Menu,” painted near the end of his life when he was in Papeete.

When we went down the three locks on the Pacific side, beginning about noon, we had fabulous conditions (daylight, no wind, no rain, good visibility) and to our surprise, the entire lock to ourselves!  Our advisor, who has been doing this for 20 years, said he has never been on a boat that had a lock to itself, or even heard of one.  He joked that we must know el presidente. It was actually just a scheduling fluke, in our favor.

After completing the transit, it felt strange to be back in the Pacific Ocean and once again on the west coast of North America.  Like finishing a good book, for my three-year circumnavigation you might say I’ve started the final chapter.  If you look at a world map, like in the back of a Lonely Planet travel guide, heck, I only have about two more inches to go and I’m back home!

I really wish Barbara could finish the voyage with me.  But she had to fly back to work.  So it is just Brian and me for the final push up the coast of Central America and Mexico over the next ten weeks.

I’m starting to make some plans for a homecoming party at the Balboa Yacht Club for July 3.

Our next Postcard will be from Costa Rica.  Until then,

Living the Dream,
with Brian

July 3, 2007

Los Angeles/Honolulu Transpac to French Polynesia - July 2007 to June 2008

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