Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A New Stamp in the Passports

We are now legally in Honduras after a fishless four day Caribbean adventure. We did catch some things - a sad state of the seas - we caught a large piece of polypropylene line and a plastic bag (that looks like it held ice at one point). Early on Sunday, we came into the reef system at Guanaja - the small southeastern most of the Bay Islands. It was a busy Sunday in the harbor off Guanaja Settlement (the town) - also called Bonacca. Lots of water taxis zipping about - very fast and with little effort to dodge other boats and anchored vessels. There is another town on another cay nearby and the taxis seem to shuttle folks back and forth. There is a large shrimp boat fleet here as well. They were in dock both for the upcoming Semana Santos (Holy Week) and because it's a big moon. There was one boat, named "Mr. Gibson" which came into the harbor in the afternoon, then left later that evening. We find that funny, because Dave and Lorna "Gibson" will be joining us here in the Bay Islands next week, it seems that they already have "connections."

Today, Monday, we did the legal duty of going to immigration and the Port Captain. Finding a place to tie the dinghy is a challenge here - as the big "water taxi" dock - where you are supposed to be able to tie for a short time - was packed with large shrimp boats. Together with the incessant zipping about of the water taxis there was no room for a dinghy. We were waved into a fuel dock and told we could leave our dinghy there which we did and then headed to find the necessary legal authorities. It was an easy and inexpensive entry. Friendly, though not overly conversant authorities, gave us 90 days in their country for the whopping total of $6. That's a bargain!!

We're stamped in and then did a bit of cruising around the town which is quite a busy place. Lots of small tiendas and veggie stands. The boat for fresh stuff arrives tomorrow - so other than a few tomatoes and cukes - there was little fresh fruit or veggies to be found. A power outage on the island earlier also meant the fresh bread wasn't quite ready. We went and stood for an hour in line at the bank to get some of the local currency - the Lempira (named after an Indian). You get a fair amount of "lemps" (as they are called) for a dollar (19 L per $1 US). But then again a loaf of bread cost 35 Lempira and a kilo of shrimp (2.2 lbs) cost 1800 lemps.

So after a quick tour through the town, we wanted to head to a different anchorage because a big weather front is headed this way this afternoon and evening. Winds are predicted to be at 30 knots out of the northwest and where we were anchored near the town - we didn't feel comfortable. So we wanted to head to a place called El Bight - a little more protected from the northwest and better holding.

We pulled anchor and headed carefully through the reefs to El Bight. There are about a dozen boats anchored here already and with a big blow coming - giving everyone plenty of swinging room is critical. We found a spot - and dropped the hook. We're a bit on the outside with not a lot of wind protection - but hopefully we'll hold. Some friends from Chapter Two and Chrisandaver Dream (the British couples we did a barb-b-que with on Providencia) are also anchored here.

So we are settled in a new spot, legal, and ready to start exploring a bit over the next few days. We'll stay on Guanaja for a few days and then before Monday, head to Roatan to meet Dave and Lorna.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day Four - Underway

We are safely anchored off the little town of Bonacca. A very tightly packed islet where most of the population of Guanaja, Honduras lives. We had a very long night. After no wind and motoring for 12 hours, we tried sailing again and then the wind picked up and we had to try and slow down. We never, never approach a new harbor in the dark.

We made it, but it was yet another rolly and tough night for sleeping off watch. We will clear in tomorrow and send more details about the Bay Islands of Honduras soon. First order of business. . . rest.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day Three - Underway

After a Thursday 0600 departure from the lovely Isla Providencia, we sailed and sailed and sailed. The winds were good at the beginning though the seas were about 6 to 8 feet and confused. It was great to sail and we didn't burn any fossil fuel. We made good time. Then it slowed to a just over 3 knots for much of the second night. The moon was very bright and up most of the night - and the skies were clear - sunny in the daytime and star-filled at night. We originally were planning on stopping at the Vivarillos - a protected reef area that is almost halfway between Isla Providencia and the Bay Islands. But we arrived there in the dead of night and decided to continue sailing. About 0200 on Saturday morning, the wind simply died and we were barely ghosting along at 2 knots. We decided that we needed to power up the engine and make some headway. So we finally succumbed to motoring. The weather report predicts better wind for the remainder of the trip - so as soon as there is enough breeze - we'll put the sails up and shut the engine off.

We've been dragging a line - but we were going so slow - no luck fishing. We did however, lose a lure. Bummer. We did catch one fish - A good sized flying fish flew right into the cockpit - and started smelling up the place. Of course, this always happens in the dark!

With the engine on, we're charging the batteries, making some water and doing a bit of laundry.

Multiple day passages gets you into a routine. Day one is usually getting the sea legs back and getting used to the motion of the boat. It also means getting used to sleeping in shifts - three hours on and three hours in bed. The first day it was so rolly - there was little sleep to be had. After awhile, you're body does adjust to the watches, the sea motion, and you get into a rhythm.

All is well - you can check our passage with position reports on the "where are we page" on the website.

We should get to Guanaja by Sunday afternoon.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New Highs on our Wedding Anniversary

Yup, he tried to kill me on our 13th anniversary! El Pico challenged us - and we took the challenge. We had arranged the tour with a guide and transportation to the base of El Pico. At 7:30ish, together with some other cruisers (from the boats: Sea Horse, The W.C. Fields, Nilaya, Ruby Slippers, and Honah Lee) twelve of us climbed into the back of a pick-up, driven by Elvis(turns out he is alive and living on Providencia), and headed around the island. Elvis stopped at a few spots to point out island landmarks. This place is quite beautiful - with things painted in bright colors and lots of tile work.

We got dropped off at the base of the highest point on the island and were met by our guide, Suckey. (Yes, our guide was Suckey!) His niece, Sophia (about eight years old) also joined us together with the woman from the tourist bureau Chrysanthea. So we figured with Chrysanthea in flip flops and an eight year old - how hard could this be? Suckey, with a jug of water and a machete led the way (stopping by a small hut on the way through the town for a swig of homemade rum, which he claimed was "for the blood"). The crew started up a path and interesting flora was pointed out along the way. There is this very wierd thorny bush with lovely fragile fernlike leaves - but the thorns are quite deadly looking and they harbor a mean little ant with a vicious bite. This was how the Brits often tortured some captured Spanish - tying them to one of these trees and letting the ants have a feast until they "talked." There was also a colorful little berry that is used for making bracelets, necklaces and art. There were lots of different tree varieties including noni, yuccas, mangoes, birches, cotton, and a sweet plum. The cotton tree is used as a filler for pillows. As we made our way up a path that got steeper and steeper, we walked along lots of rocks that would be covered in water during the rainy season. The rocks were a bit of ankle twisters, but we trekked on. The eight year old was like a little goat - running ahead and then waiting for Chrysanthea. The flip flops were not such a great idea!

Luckily it was a cloudy day - otherwise the heat may have been too much. The humidity was quite high and it was a workout. It was hard to look around you, having to look at your feet and the next step - so you didn't trip on a rock or stump. We passed an area where someone was trying to conserve the native plants, many of which got destroyed in a hurricane a few years back. There was an area where they had all these tiny black plastic bags filled with dirt and sprouts of mango, sweet plum and some other native trees. They get seeded and then given to folks to plant in their yards or lower on the mountain during rainy season. Quite a cool project.

Anyway, we kept moving up the hill like a trail of ants following Suckey. Finally, we broke through the dense woods and started to see some remarkable views of the island. As we got to the peak, it got quite windy. The overcast day didn't make for the best photographs, but it certainly made for a bearable hike. We sat at the top of El Pico on the rocks and took in the islands view and a chance to rest. As we were resting, two more groups of climbers showed up. Apparently, El Pico is "the" thing to do. Then, we reversed and headed downhill - which in some ways was even more difficult.

On the way down, because it had gotten warmer, we saw some of the islands very colorful lizards - they are this very bright blue with a colorful stripe down their backs. They are poisonous(should you choose to eat one). They are cleverly named "Blue Lizards" (a name even we could remember).

We made it back down the hill - hot, tired and sweaty. The hikers (in typical cruiser fashion) instantly sought out a tienda for some cold beers. We had a very tasty cold one and then loaded back in Elvis' truck for the ride back. He went a different way - so by the end - we had been around the entire island. We stopped by a woman's art studio - she's the one that makes all the fabulous tiles seen on the island.

Once back, several cruisers decided to try to a small local restaurant for lunch. We enjoyed a big "typical" feast of soup, meat, rice, and slaw. It was tasty and not expensive.

We headed back to the boats and could not move the rest of the day. We had planned to head out for an anniversary dinner - but decided we didn't even have the energy to get the dinghy in the water (we got picked up in the morning by a fellow cruiser to "dinghy pool" into the dock for the morning trip.) So we had some leftovers for dinner after a much needed swim/shower. It was an early night for the crew and today -we are surprised we can move.

It was a great hike with great views and a good adventure. Now, we wait for weather to head to Honduras. It's been very windy with some cold fronts coming through. We have guests coming to Honduras in early April - so we need to start moving relatively soon.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Musica Typical

On Friday night, Old Providence put on a big show for the island's guests. Mr. Bush, the maritime agent, told all the boats that this was for them and attendance was just about mandatory! It was a great event in the town park near the dinghy dock. Young children in traditional (or as they call it "typical") costumes did some dances and were quite good. Two different groups did different types of dances. The live band was quite a combination of traditional instruments including a "horse jaw" (teeth and all) that was played like a cow bell - but had an interesting rattle from the teeth. There was a washtub bass; a rhythm guitar, a mandolina, maracas and a wood block. The gentlemen in the band also sang and it was quite fun. A really funny song about Matilda spending all a man's money in Venezuela was great. Mr. Willie B, the mandolina player is quite famous in these parts - he even has CDs and was quite good. Michael hunted out some cold brews so we could have something to drink while being entertained. The town set up all these chairs for the "guests" - with Mr. Bush tossing the local kids off the chairs when more gringos showed up! It was great because most of the cruising boats showed up- and there are now about 18 in the harbor. There were also some tourists who are on the island who came and enjoyed the festivities. The last dance number by these eight young girls grabbed some men from the crowd to dance - with Capt. Michael being the first one picked. And we all know how he loves to dance!!!

After about 90 minutes or so of music and dance, they put up a sheet against a building and projected a documentary (in Spanish) about water conservation. It seems that March 22 is El Dia de Agua (Day of water). Then, they showed a bunch of public service announcements about water conservation and then the "Planet Earth" series (all in Spanish). It was an interesting night.

On Monday, we have put together a hike to El Pico - the highest point on the island. We have a guide and it's up to twelve people (gotten a little larger than we anticipated). We'll get an early start and hopefully make it up and back - with some good photos and a few "colorful lizard" sightings.

We'll let you know how it goes. Today (Sunday), we'll snorkel some caves and get laundry done.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hiking, Snorkeling, Socializing=?ISO-8859-1?Q?=85?=and Boat Projects

It's been very pleasant in Providencia these past few days. We moved the boat a bit closer to town to try to eliminate some of the roll in the anchorage - and it seems to have helped. It's a very shallow bay - we're now anchored in about 8 feet of water! Luckily the tides are only about a foot.

We've done some exploring around Santa Catalina. There is a well maintained trail around the island that takes you to a Fort (that was built by the pirates), Morgan's head (a naturally carved stone sculpture that resembles a man's head - one that supposedly looks like the pirate Henry Morgan) and to the spot labeled "Morgan's Treasure" (though we're thinking if it's labeled "treasure" it wouldn't still be there!). The trail is up and down hills with some incredible views over the turquoise waters and reefs. The island is filled with palm trees and exotic plants. The trail is really well maintained with bamboo handrails in some areas, hawser handrails in other areas, a bamboo bridge, trail markers with info on beautifully painted tiles - just a really lovely hike. We saw some very colorful lizards as well - one that was a bright royal blue.

We also have walked around the "big" town Santa Isabel on Providencia - it's about three streets. There is a small internet café - but it very slow; two bakeries, a hardware store, two small groceries, two banks and the administration buildings. We haven't yet tried any of the several small restaurants. The town has a small hospital and several churches. One bridge, called "Lover's Lane" connects Providencia with Santa Catalina. It is made of wood colorfully painted. In the center you climb up about 8 steps and then down 8 - that is the bridge opening for small launches and dinghies to get through. The area is well maintained, very clean and lots of outdoor art - metal sculptures and nice tile work.

We've also snorkeled in a few places. The reefs on the outside of the harbor (the leeward side) are remarkable. More barracudas than we've seen - some in schools and few very large ones stalking the reefs alone. It seemed every time you saw a nice big fish - there was a barracuda protecting it. This reef's quite healthy and it was a fun afternoon exploring.

The next day we went by dinghy through the lover's lane bridge and around the corner to "Crab Cay." This was recommended to us by the very helpful man in the tourist's office. He said it was great snorkeling. It was quite a dinghy ride - and unfortunately the reefs were not very healthy. There was a lot of fish - but the reefs were covered with algae and all brown.

So we stopped at a few more spots on the way back and one was terrific if you got on the outer edge (the deep side) of the reef. It had a remarkable collection of fish and some healthy coral structure. We saw all kinds of critters lettuce sea slugs, fingerprint cyphomas, flamingo tongues, flame helmet shell (alive), damselfish, angel fish, hamlets, basslets, parrotfish, beautiful true tulip shell, file fish, porcupine fish, cow fish, queen trigger fish, shark, all types of snapper, colorful coral fish - so many things. We also saw a soldierfish with an isopod attached. (this is a weird parasite that attaches to the fish's head - kinda weird looking). It really ended up being a great spot because of the fish and critter variety.

Last night, we were invited to a "barbie" on the beach with two other boats. They are British boats and one (an IP) had caught quite a bit of fish - so we enjoyed grilled jack. The funniest part - was the grill on the beach. There was a concrete grill - it had rocks inside and we put coconut husks in as the cooking fuel, As the fire heated up - the fire started to explode - first small pops sending out ash, then it progressively got to be bigger and bigger explosions. It started to send out the hot coconut husks and then the rocks from the bottom of the grill. It was dangerous anywhere on the beach as this fire belched out hot rocks and wood bits. One rock was sizzling hot and Mike from the boat Chapter Two got a hot bit on his head that started to burn his hair. We'll have to show a rock to one of our geologist friends to see what made these rocks explode. It was weird. The fish, potatoes and garlic bread finally got cooked and we enjoyed a feast and good company staying on the beach past dark to enjoy a very starry night. We negotiated our way back to the boats via dinghies well after "cruisers' midnight."

A few nights earlier we got invited about "Genesis" with a great German couple and enjoyed a few night cocktails and conversation with them. They had a rough trip here and are awaiting parts for a broken engine and headsail foil. It's nice to start to get to know some folks here.

And between all the hiking, snorkeling, and socializing - we are getting some stainless polished, fuel tanks filled, the bottom cleaned, cooking done, cleaning, practicing Spanish and small repairs completed.

We still want to hike to "El Pico" and rent scooters to get around the island. More boats are arriving daily and the anchorage is getting filled. Mr. Bush, the agent is counting his money!

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Legal in Colombia

Providencia is geologically located off the coast of Nicaragua (see the dot on our "where are we" map, but is politically part of Colombia. Yesterday, we saw the "agencia de Maritima" Mr. Bush (no relation to what he calls "that crazy gringo"). He met us at the tourist office, we walked to his office and then we waited for the Port Captain to clear us in. He arrived, did his paperwork, then we walked to the Immigration office to get clearance. We are now all official, the yellow flag is down and we are set for a few weeks on the lovely island of Providencia.

The island is topographically stunning - it is volcanic in origin and has lots of hilly terrain. Yes, we will be climbing hills! There is a smaller island, Santa Catalina, attached to the larger island by a foot bridge. Several other smaller islands on the windward side are part of a National Park. The entire island, along with its sister island San Andres, were made part of the Unesco Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in 2000. This includes the two islands and a surrounding 300,000 square kilometers of marine area - about 10% of the Caribbean Sea. The objective is conservation and environmental protection of an ecosystem with great biological diversity.

The waters surrounding the island are that beautiful Caribbean turquoise, and coming in, we could actually see the bottom clearly in 30 feet of water. There are many coral reefs and there is supposed to be a rich underwater life here - so we will definitely spend some time in the water while here.

The hills also have many hiking trails. In the center, the highest peak is called "El Pico" which we are going to tackle. It is supposed to have quite a vibrant lizard life. The towns are small and have little bakeries, groceries and even an ice cream shop or two. We had a scoop yesterday after clearing in - and it wasn't the tastiest we've had - but it was ice cream. We may also rent a motor scooter and zip around the 17 sq. km. island.

The island is populated with almost 5000 residents, mostly from mainland Colombia. Traditionally known as Old Providence, there is quite a history for this small out of the way island. Dutch colonists made there home here in the 16th century and then were thrown out by the English who effectively colonized the island. They brought in Jamaican slaves to cultivate tobacco and cotton. The Spanish were a little miffed at the Brits success - so they did what they normally did in 1635 - invade! But they were not successful.

Because of its strategic location, the island provided convenient hide-outs for pirates waiting to sack Spanish galleons bound for home laden with gold and jewels. In 1670, the legendary pirate (of rum fame) Captain Henry Morgan, called Providencia his home base. From here, he regularly invaded Colombia and Panama. Legend has it that his treasure is still hidden on the island. Maybe we'll find it and can continue cruising a few more years!

Colombia laid claim to the islands. Nicaragua fiercely disputed that claim. A treaty in 1928 settled the claim which confirmed Colombia's sovereignty over the island. Nicaragua continues to press the issue at the International High Court of Justice in the Hague. Every so often, Nicaraguan boats get into the maritime space and the Colombians send in the navy and submarines to "saber rattle." It looks like at this point, the islands will remain Colombian.

After a good night's sleep (though there was a bit of a roll in the harbor), we'll probably go to shore today and walk around a bit. It will be a slow and easy weekend for the Astarte crew after the passage. Then we'll start exploring in earnest next week.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Night Watches

For those sailors who read this - you'll know all about night watches. But for our non-boater friends here's a little insight into "night watches."

We just completed a 50 hour motor/sail from Isla Linton to Providencia, a Colombian island off the Nicaraguan coast. That meant we were out for two nights. Michael and I do three hour watches at night - three on and three off to hit the sack. Unlike the "watch clock" which chimes in time to four hour watches, we felt four was a bit too long. Even with three, that last hour can seem to drag on. You actually look forward to seeing big ships at night - as it gives you something to do - avoid hitting it. But most of the watches these past few nights simply entailed looking at the magnificent star filled sky; watching the phosphorescence in the water sparkle and keeping your eye on the horizon.

The sky was as clear as can be - from a wonderfully bright sunset to a star-filled night sky. You could watch Orion seem to do a cartwheel through the night sky as he moved east to west and finally went head first into the water on the western horizon. The "southern cross" was very bright on the southern horizon - pointing as it should - southward. The north star was very bright and very low on the horizon - it almost looked like a ships light. The "scorpion" was looking for its next victim and we worked at identifying other constellations and stars.

The sky and water seemed to melt together - it was hard at night to actually see a separation. The water was also filled with star-like brightness - as the phosphorescence that is kicked up by the waves and the boats' wake sparkled like little diamonds being thrown into the sea. It was fun to watch dolphins, that you could only see by their phosphorescent glow as the streaked through the water, then in the darkness, hear them take a breath of air.

Every so often - there would be that big ship on the horizon - or in one case - four ships at once. You'd have to decide which way they were headed and how close you'd get. The AIS system on board is a mighty helpful tool - one we didn't have until a few years ago. It actually identifies each ship by name, size, course, speed and even the nearest point you'll be with it. We had to do a few avoidance moves over the few days - but overall it was a quiet watch, once we were past the shipping channels into the Panama Canal and Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.

The really good news about night watches - it's an excuse to have a snack at 0200. You grab a biscotti (thanks mom) and crunch away to stay awake.

We actually don't mind night watches - unlike many boaters. It seems that after three days your body adjusts. We haven't done a three-day one yet on this trip. This was only two days and the last night passage we made was in October from Colombia to Panama.

Now we're at anchor in a pretty little harbour. More on Providencia in the next entry.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alternator Woes

We left more or less on time from Isla Linton today at 0815. Motoring out of the channel and past some big rocks. Wind is down, 3-5k out of the north. A little too close to our course for sailing so we thought we would motor for a while and at least get the new batteries up to full charge, (finally). Seas are reasonable, 3-6ft and the sky is finally clearing. Looks to be a good start.

But.. . . . after 45 minutes or so, the tachometer started to jump around. The needle was bouncing like an empty beer can on a stormy sea. Not good. It finally quit. Which translates to the alternator has quit working. This is the second one that the Balmar three stage regulator has fried. Balmar has some "splainin to do"!! So instead of going back in, Michael(who is, as you have probably figured out by now, writing this entry) changed back to the internally regulated alternator. It doesn't put out as much, but at least works. It took about an hour. We sailed very slowly, a fair way off course, but we were motoring again by 1030 and had the bow of Astarte heading toward Providencia. We will keep going and figure out the problem from there or the Bay Islands in Honduras.

We hope to be into Providencia by Friday morning, and maybe even sailing by tomorrow morning. The winds are supposed to clock around more to the east, the farther north we get.

That's all, for now. Gotta get the fishing line out.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wind. Wind. And Some Rain.

We're waiting for the weather to change. It's the "dry" season in Panama - or so they say - but you wouldn't know it by looking at the recent weather. It's been grey, cloudy and rainy for almost a week. We're settled behind Isla Linton and getting a few projects done. We've played some dominoes with friends and had dinners and desserts aboard each others boats.

Tomorrow is the day we hope to be heading north - to Isla Providencia off the Nicaraguan coast - but a Colombian owned island. It's about 250 miles away - and with the wind a bit on the nose - it should probably take us two days to get there.

Today, we are getting some diesel from Tito - it was supposed to come yesterday - but - no. So hopefully this morning. It's the islands! Michael will work on the wind generator this afternoon (a big project involving a ladder on a boat - hope the roll settles down a bit - or it could be "interesting.")

Otherwise - it's been a trip into town, practicing Spanish in real life situations, cooking, plus projects like changing hoses in the heads and cleaning out the water-maker, and, visiting with folks. It will be good to be moving on and hopefully that will happen soon. That dot on our "where are we" map is getting too stuck!

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Killer Bees. Sloths. Howler Monkeys. And Men with Guns.

After so much excitement going through the canal (on someone else's boat, Matt!); heading back to the states; staying a month at Panamarina - we are now back on the anchor. It feels good. We have made the "big" passage to Isla Linton to wait for a weather window to head northwest.

A few missed stories that we'll catch up - mostly "critter" stories that folks seem to enjoy. Let's start with the "killer bees." As we were headed towards Shelter Bay Marina on the bus, we were stopped for a ship going through the canal for about 15 minutes. We watched as a man dressed in full "bee gear" - the helmet with netting over the face, the head to toe overalls, duct taped cuffs, big shoes etc. He had what looked like cans of spray paint - though we're guessing it was some type of killer bee killer. He went into the woods and managed to find some bees because he came out followed by a swarm of bees. The cars that were on the road started to close their windows - but some not quick enough. We saw many people in the cars and a school bus, madly swatting at these angry bees. Some took off from the line of cars to get away from the swarm. Luckily, our bus was all closed up but the bees were hitting the windows with a vengeance. It was quite a sight.

From ducking fast moving angry bees to watching a slow moving sloth. We finally saw a sloth in a tree and they fit their name perfectly. They move very, very slowly. As we left the dinghy dock in Panama City (Pacific side), we looked into a tree that is known to have sloths regularly, and sure enough - two sloths. We saw one quite well as he/she was feeding on some leaves - slowly putting out its hand to grab a leave and very slowly bringing it back to its mouth. It was like watching a slo-motion movie.

Watching howler monkeys playing in the trees in Linton. From where we are anchored, we see the spider monkeys on Isla Linton - and they come out and often get fed by cruisers and tour boats. But we also saw some wild howler monkeys playing in the trees on the mainland side. There were about four of them jumping from limb to limb and tree to tree. Then we heard them roar at sunset - so we were pretty sure they were howlers - they had that loud, very scary roar.

A boat full of men with guns - camouflage gear, bullet proof vests, helmets - the whole outfit, came near where we were anchored yesterday morning. They yelled at a man on shore, then quickly unloaded, jumping in the water with their weapons and ran on shore. They went through the house, several going into the woods and came back with "the man." We watched the action, thinking it was a drill of some sort. But then we found out what was really going on - and it was a bit frightening.

It seems that there was a drug deal gone bad a few days ago - depending on who's story you listen to - either two or four Colombians were killed, execution style, on an island near-by. One Colombian escaped by swimming to Isla Linton and was found by these police. There have been lots of military helicopters and boats around filled with military people. Then, yesterday afternoon - two boats of military folks came through the anchorage pulling two large launches and it was announced on the radio that these were two of the "drug boats." There also is word that there was a big bust with 40 people arrested in a near-by town.

And we thought this was a nice quiet little area. Because there is so much "gossip" about it - we're hoping that this is truly an unusual event. But it was certainly exciting.

Our friends Honore and Walt from Will O' the Wisp came into Linton yesterday so it was great seeing them again and catching up over a dinner at "Hans'." We'll play a dominos round one of these days with them. The weather forecast makes it look like we'll be here for at least a few days.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Atlantic Ocean. Pacific Ocean. Atlantic Ocean.

We did it! We went through the Panama Canal's locks on Friday and Saturday. Thanks to Jack on Anthem, and together with other friends Jack and Patricia from Whoosh, we went through with no damage to any persons or vessels! It was a great experience and a varied experience for the crew.

On Thursday, we arrived via the "chicken" bus to 4 Altos to meet Stanley our agent for our paperwork to clear out of Panama and then met Jack and Jack to go to Shelter Bay Marina where Anthem was currently docked. We enjoyed seeing Shelter Bay because we ran into some cruisers we hadn't seen for some time. - Peter and Nani from Joule and Inge and Burt from Borree. They were also prepping for their canal adventure in a few days. It was good to share stories and have a few beers with them.

Anthem got its car tires delivered - these would be used as fenders. They are old car tires wrapped in plastic to keep the boats from getting black smudges - but are big to save the boat from the dreaded "wall." Also each boat is required to have four 125 foot 7/8 inch lines to tie to the bollards as you go through the locks. These are also rented and were delivered to Anthem. Jack also covered his solar panels with some cardboard and garbage bags to save them from the tossed monkey fists that the onshore lock helpers send to the boat. (A monkey fist is a leaded or heavy knot at the end of a line that provides the person tossing the line a weight to get that line a good distance. But they are known to break windows, solar panels and heads when tossed.)

We were told our time was 1630 so we headed out of the marina to "the flats." This is where boats anchor waiting for their pilots or advisors to come out and take the vessel through the locks. There were boats of all sizes anchored in the locks - 600 foot cargo boats to our 38 foot Cabo Rico. Big ships get pilots and smaller vessels get "advisors." The advisor is just that - a person to "advise" the captain what to do to get through the locks. There were four sailboats that looked to be going through around the same time. We were told that we would probably go through with another sailboat. We watched as advisors got on three of the other sailboats and we didn't get one. Jack called the Canal Traffic Authority and we were told our time was now 1730. Our advisor, Francisco, arrived at 1740. We pulled anchor and were headed for the first of the three Gatun locks. We were slowed down as the order of a few larger ships apparently were being shuffled around and would go in ahead of us. We were also told we would be going in alone, center tied. That means that we would not be tied to another boat. The various ways to lock through include in a raft of other similar boats (the way most sailboats seem to go through). This is called "nesting up" and the boats tie together in a small two or three boat raft, prior to going through the locks - with the largest boat in the center (if there are three boats). This then requires only four line-handlers out of the 12 on the boats to actually have to work. If it's two boats, the larger vessel does the motoring and two people from each boat control the outside lines. Another way is side-tied to a tug. This is just as it sounds. The boat is tied to a large tug boat and the tug boat is tied to the wall and you simply go along for the ride. Another way is wall-tied. This is by far the most dangerous and potentially damaging way for sailboats and rarely used. You would be tied along the wall protected by fenders and those big tires on your vessel and handle the lines to tighten and loosen depending if you are up-locking or down-locking. We would be "center-tied" - another way which means we go through centered in the lock between the walls and all four line handlers must carefully be choreographed to let in or out, the appropriate line to stay centered. That was our way of going though and none on board had ever done this before.

Oh, and then we see this huge chemical ship in front of us stop in the lock and we now realize, we are going through with it in front of us. This is probably a 600 foot - wall to wall vessel. They use huge locomotives called mules, to pull these vessels through the locks. They tied to six locomotives (three on each side) to hold the boat steady in the lock and then pull it through to the next lock. So the big chemical ship gets settled and then it's our turn. By now it is dark - about 1900, and we are locking through under the lights of the canal - which make it just about as bright as day. We have our instructions from the advisor Fransisco. Two lines are tossed from the centerwall of the canal and two from the mainland side. These are the "messenger lines" attached with monkey fists for easy tossing. We must catch this line and then tie them through the large loop on our line with a bowline and hold the line until told to give it slack. So the first monkey fist comes down on the starboard side first. Barbara who is working the stern starboard gets the first fist and it lands across the boom but she gets it and Francisco ties it on for her (and she had been practicing her bowline all afternoon!) Then Jack Tyler on starboard bow gets his bowline. Nobody hit, nothing broken so far. Starboard is secured. Capt. Jack is told to steer the boat to port a bit for those lines. The first toss misses the boat completely (must have had a few cocktails on shore). Then the second toss misses completely (double beer penalty) The advisor is getting a tad mad at the shore folks. Finally, Michael gets his on the port bow and Patricia gets hers on the port stern. We are secure and again - no damage to heads or windows.

Now, we must let out our line so that the monkey fist, which is now attached to our 125 foot lines, gets back up to the shore wall, a good 80-90 feet high, and the line (which has a big loop in it) gets put on a massive bollard. We are now attached on four points to the canal and centered in the chamber. As the giant gates close - it's a bit intimidating. We have a giant ship in front of us and this 38 foot sailboat is behind it with four lines holding it in the center. Water starts to come in - and it comes in quite quickly and the boat starts to rise and the walls seem to be dropping. We must, in a very team-like fashion, pull in the slack in the lines as the waters rise. This keeps the boat centered in the lock. Its amazing the amount of stress on the lines as the water pours in. We all work well together and never even get close to a wall and then the lock is filled (it takes about 15 minutes), the big front gate opens and the big ship is pulled out by the mules (locomotives). Now, we must slacken our lines and the shore people take them off the bollards and walk as the boat motors slowly to the next lock. Luckily, the lines stay attached to the monkey fists (which we now have again on our boat). The routine continues for two more of the Gatun locks. The same drill each time. Pull in the lines as the water rises, release them when the lock is filled and move to the next lock. By the third lock - the line handlers are getting blisters and sore muscles from the routine. It's a lot of work. But the team is becoming a fine oiled machine. After we are released from the third lock, we motor through the dark - because now it is mighty dark, and head to a mooring buoy in Gatun Lake where we will spend the night. These buoys are huge and there is another boat, Attitude, on the buoy. They have a system to tie up multiple boats to this buoy. Michael jumped off onto the buoy (yes, they are that big) and tied the boat in a pre-prescribed manner. We are now settled for the night. We finally eat our dinner and the advisor gets picked up. We are exhausted and call it a night. 0600 will come early.

The next morning we awake to the sounds of howler monkeys and alarm clocks. Our new advisor is supposed to get there around 0630. The boat gets there with advisors around 0620 and we meet Ricardo. He is a terrific, very knowledgeable guy who's been doing this for many years. In fact, turns out he is an instructor for new advisors. He is mellow and very pleasant and we prepare to go. This is about a 19 mile trip across the lake to the Pedro Miguel Locks. We are told that today we would be locking through tied to another sailboat, Black Arrow. We had heard that yesterday, this boat had pulled a cleat off one of the boats it was nested to. It sounded like we'd have our work cut out for us with this particular boat's captain. But we were confident in our advisor Ricardo being able to handle the guy.

We had a nice cruise through the lake seeing all types of cruise ships, cargo ships, car carriers and even a French warship, Jeanne d' Arc that all did "the wave" on deck. Too funny.

We "nested up" with Black Arrow prior to the lock and were in the lock with a tour boat (a boat with probably 100-150 people that pay about $100 to go through the canal), a nest of two other sailboats and our "nest" of two boats. We all get into the first lock and it goes smoothly. Our confidence in the other boat isn't high when we realize they can't tie a cleat hitch - but we make it through unscathed. This is down-locking - a bit easier as you let out line rather than bringing it in. Michael is on the starboard bow and Jack Tyler is on the starboard stern. Patricia and Barbara are just keeping eyes on things. We make it through these locks and then with Anthem on the motor, we go the 1 mile through the Miraflores Lake to the final locks. The last Miraflores lock is the largest change of water because of the high Pacific tides.

The weather changed as the day went on and we got drenched (actually Michael got drenched as he was the one who had to be out there on the bow line). Jack Tyler also was pretty wet by the end.
But we made it past the locks, untied from Black Arrow and then moved to an anchorage in Panama City. It was a great two days and a great crew. We then dined out, thanks Capt. Jack, and then left on Sunday morning. We caught a cab with the Patricia and Jack to the bus terminal and caught a bus to Colon then we went on to Panamarina. Unfortunately, the 1130 bus to Cacique doesn't run on Sundays, so we caught a 1230 to La Guaira and would walk the 3km to the marina. A nice woman ended up giving us a ride a portion of the way. This was good as Michael's boat shoe had given up and he was dragging a sole.

We then hitched a dinghy ride out to our boat - and got aboard Astarte and instantly fell asleep.

It's Capt. Hawk's birthday - happy day to him! We'll celebrate.

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