Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Irie Out to Save Birds (Or How We Failed to Sail to Bocas del Toro)

The Past

A Belgian magazine writer recently interviewed me about my (our) unusual life and one of the questions was “What is the weirdest/worst thing that ever happened to you on your trips?” This is a tough one to answer and required a lot of thinking. Mark and I have been on the boat for over five years and with some good planning, constant maintenance and a bit of luck, nothing really terrible has happened yet. We’ve been able to avoid massive storms, lightning strikes, important gear failure and other disasters – like hitting whales or floating containers. We’ve been through scary nights and temporary squalls and survived choppy seas, hence with a bit of puking on my part. Yesterday, I kept thinking about this question, because what we were experiencing was the answer to it!

The Present

One of the reasons Mark and I left the San Blas islands in October was to sail to Bocas del Toro – with a stop at the magnificent Escudo de Veraguas - and visit this archipelago near the border with Costa Rica. We hoped to spend the month of November there, exploring hiking trails, reefs, amazing beaches, and affordable restaurants. But, the rainy season (with November generally accepted as the worst month) brings lots of rain, thunder, lightning and squalls, and… light west winds – the direction we needed to go. The distance is about 170 miles and there would be no way Irie would motor this far. So, we waited for wind… and waited for wind.

On Saturday, November 3rd, we set out with a weather forecast of east winds 10-15 knots. Once outside of Portobelo harbor, the wind came from the west, at less than 10 knots! We tried to sail, but after two hours of not making any progress in the right direction, we returned – making nice speed with the wind at our back – to our familiar spot in the anchorage. Monday, November 5th, predicted east-northeast winds 10-15 knots and we had a better feeling about trying the trip again. The boats in the anchorage faced northeast and so did all the cargo ships in front of industrial Colon, based on our chart plotter’s AIS signals. We were good to go!

The wind was perfect, coming from the right angle at a decent speed, to try our spinnaker out for a longish trip. We rigged the big, light sail up and had two reefs in our main sail as to not block the head sail and to have a sail up for steerage when taking the spinnaker down. The engine was only on for a few minutes, before we headed west under sail. The following 7 hours were wonderful: we were speeding along, talking about going all the way to Bocas and doing Veraguas on the way back. The waves were manageable, the sun even peeked out for a moment, and I was not seasick. We wondered whether we could do this for 30 days straight next spring – the circumstances were comparable to the course and following seas in the Pacific Ocean. Life was good!

After 45 miles things changed. The wind turned more north, which was OK with spinnaker down and jib up, no reefs in the main sail. But, the seas became very steep and choppy. We had the predicted NE swell and a weird counter chop from the west. When the two sets of waves collided under Irie, she almost came to a halt. This kept going on for hours as we felt like being in a washing machine. The answer to the sea state was explained, when the wind turned due west! The massive black cloud above us must have been the cause. We tried to sail away from it, through it, around it and even started the engines to try to get to the other side. It was impossible. After another hour, we thought we did it, only to find out that there was another one of these huge squalls, and eight more on the radar… They were unavoidable. In the meantime, three birds kept bugging us; one landed on my shoulder and startled me when I tried to put a warmer T-shirt on, another made its way inside the boat and the third one kept attacking the sails and lines! They eventually tried to hitch a ride to shore.

We could not make any more headway (there was also a 1.5 knot current against us) and the chaotic sea made me seriously sick. By now, Mark was frustrated, I was puking, the boat was stuck in turmoil and it was dark! To top it off, we ran into a pile of invisible tree trunks – twice - and the lightning around us became more threatening. Listening to massive blocks of wood scraping and bumping against your boat with every movement on the water is not something you want to hear! And, there is nothing you can do, but hope no damage was done. While I, queasily, took over the helm, Mark went inside Irie to check the bilges for water coming in. This was truly one of the worst moments of our sailing life. Everything appeared fine, but we urgently need to get into the water to check the hulls more carefully. It is just too muddy to see underwater everywhere with all the run-off from the rain.

We started to believe that this Bocas trip was not meant to be for us and – once again, this time halfway to Veraguas – we turned around, sailing east. From the moment we escaped the clouds, the wind turned north once more and a couple of hours later, the seas calmed down. We had skipped dinner and I had retired into the horizontal position, while Mark took care of the boat the rest of the night. It was a lot of work, trimming the sails endlessly in fluky winds becoming heavier during squalls and lighter in between. While we managed to bypass the huge amount of cargo ships in front of the Panama Canal entrance going west, this proved to be very difficult and nerve-wrecking at night. Mark spent a few hours changing course and avoiding massive freighters near Colon. At 4am, after circling around waiting for another rainstorm to diminish, we arrived back into our old anchoring spot in Portobelo, exhausted and soaking wet. Only once before in five years have we had to anchor at night, and only once before have we turned back, before setting out the following day.

The Future

At least one bird managed to sleep on the lifelines without falling off during the whole sail trip back, and found its way to a new jungle home. It left us a nice present on the side of the boat. One more Panamanian common swallow saved!

Mark and I have concluded that sailing the Panamanian coast in the rainy season (June-November) – especially at night - is hard, if not impossible, and uncomfortable. We will never attempt it again. Most boats motor wherever they go this time of the year. Bocas del Toro is not in our future and – unfortunately – doubts are creeping up about the Pacific Ocean. If we just wait a few days and let our minds and spirits (and my stomach) settle down, we will realize this was a – hopefully - one time and uncommon event not to be repeated…

While in the San Blas islands we obtained a little wooden statue called a “nuchu”, made and owned by the Indians to fend off bad spirits. Since we have this little guy on board, we have only had bad sailing experiences. Not that we are superstitious, but this man might have to find another home. Or, maybe he didn’t like the little ceremony – involving champagne and kisses on the head – we had for him on SV Reach before we left the islands…

Feeding el nuchu, who we named "sahila", after the Kuna chiefs, champagne

Approaching the busy area of Colon with the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal

All the triangles are traffic (with AIS system) in and around the Canal! There are at least 85 cargo ships.

 Logs of this size have bumped Irie in anchorages before. Imagine sailing into and over tree trunks even bigger...

Weather in Portobelo

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