Currents, calms and squalls

“Any day now” or “Within the next week” was what we were repeatedly told in Costa Rica about the fast approaching rainy season. We had not seen rain since December and I was doubtful our luck would last through Costa Rica. The clouds looming and ever present but somehow we made it all the way to Golfito, the last port in Costa Rica, before the rains began.  Relaxing at Tierra y Mar (Land & Sea), we watched the first downpour of the season and an incredible display of lightning. It was great to watch apart from the fact we were to set sail shortly, as lightning tends to put me a bit on edge while at sea.

We pulled up anchor on a calm, windless morning hoping for some southerly winds as we rounded Punta Mala in two days’ time. We rode the ebbing tide out of the bay escorted by a DSCF4824couple of bottlenose dolphins slowly swimming along side. It was a beautiful day and you could see the lush green coastline for miles as we headed out of Costa Rica and made for Panama City.

We had already crossed the Costa Rica / Panama border when the first squalls began to develop. We carried no radar and made adjustments here and there to avoid what we could. We did alright until an inescapable dark mass with tendrils hanging low began to close in on us. As the thunder began to boom you could see the ocean below churning from the winds that would soon be upon us. I pulled in two reefs while it was still easy because once the wind wall hits and the deluge starts the easiest tasks can become difficult or even dangerous. I then had Josie put a cellphone(for GPS), a compass and our SPOT into a rubber boot which is then placed in the oven. The idea is the oven acts as a sort of Faraday box in case of a lightning strike and we lose all of our primary equipments. Does it work? I’d rather not find out.

When the wind did hit it was a relief as this squall carried winds of less than 30kts. The rain was falling so hard that to go on deck for even a moment would leave you soaked to the bone. We had no visibility left as the thunder cracked and lightning flashed. Once one gets to this point there is no reason to be on deck after everything is set, so I went below to dry out best I could. For the next 45 minutes we rode right up through the middle and out the other side. Once the wind and rain subsided we were becalmed as evening began to set in. This went on throughout the night and we had another three squalls before the sun came up.

The following day with barely enough wind to sail on we had no more nasty weather . We made our way to Punta Mala well after dark and about 3 or 4 am things began to get difficult. The north winds that the gulf of Panama is famous for begun steadily increasing. We were heading now directly up wind with the Humboldt current set against us. Tacking every hour or so between the busiest shipping lane in the Americas and the Panamanian coast, our progress came to a halt.  With 25kts of wind sustained, sometimes more, and a 2kt current set against us we were now making 1 nm good every hour.

To add to our challenge a bottle of oil had come loose from its storage and began to leak all over the cabin floor. By the time we had noticed it the floor had been coated from one end to the next. It made the already-challenging task of keeping one’s balance, inside of a boat heeled over and beating into the waves, an impossible one. If some one had filmed us trying to clean up while slipping, sliding and swearing I am sure the footage would have ended up in the slapstick hall of fame.

Sailing hard on the wind with so few miles gained is exhausting and after 2 days gone and just over 50nm gained since rounding Punta Mala, we finally made the decision to anchor at Isla Bona to get some rest and explore the abandoned factory on the DSCF4866uninhabited island. After a hike across the island to see the machinery being taken back by the jungle, pelicans nesting and the mysterious field of black sand with a high specific gravity we kayaked back to the boat. Soon after the wind shifted slightly and now the wind waves were causing the anchorage to become potentially dangerous so we moved 1 mile away at Isla Otoque.  This well-sheltered anchorage proved to be as calm and peaceful as we could have hoped.

The next day feeling much better about everything we headed out as the sun was coming up. As soon as we left the protection of the island it was clear that the wind was beginning to shift and abate. We were now able to take a more favorable heading, even if not direct, that allowed us to make good time. As the morning drew on, the winds continued to lighten and with the sun shining the sailing was excellent.

We arrived in the outer anchorages area outside Panama City filled with cargo ships and tankers shortly in the early afternoon. We did our best to follow DSCF4904protocol here but repeated attempts to contact Flamenco Signal Station left us wondering if our radio had crapped out on us. After hailing a passing tanker by the name of Woo Loo Moo Loo and confirming our equipment was sound, we waited till traffic was light and cut across the canal channel towards the La Playita Anchorage. We wandered through the crowded anchorage till we found a spot near the breakwater where we finally doped the hook. With our final Pacific passage of this journey now behind us we barely had a moment to reflect on the thousands of miles in our wake before the whirlwind of paperwork and preparation that is the Panama Canal.

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