Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dear Santa,

It's hard to believe it's getting into the Christmas season. In the tropics, the weather is sunny and warm with cool tropical breezes (and sometimes stronger trade winds). It's hard to imagine the rush of Christmas shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

We hope everyone had a wonderful turkey day with family and friends. We got to speak to ours via phone which was nice and did indeed enjoy the fellowship of boaters, backpackers and local Panamanians at Captain Jack's Canopy Bar. It was a really magnificent and eclectic feast enjoyed by folks of all nationalities. Michael had a young Belgium backpacker asking him for relationship advice, we enjoyed the company of some Brits that now call this area home with dirt dwellings, and of course, the many boaters we've met along the way. It was a great afternoon with live music from the Amigos of Brazil as well as Capt. Jack and others taking up instruments or singing.

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it's back to boat projects. Michael completed two major sewing projects – covering the new water jugs and the "lifesling." The "Lifesling" holder had just about disintegrated so he built a new cover to add a few more years of life to it. That way it doesn't have to be added to the "dear Santa" list.

Our list for Santa is unfortunately growing. We now may also need a new outboard. Michael got Yoshi started again (another unanticipated boat project that took all day) but we think there is still a serious problem with a main bearing. It is probably not worth the cost of a major repair – so we will price outboards while in Panama City. Ouch.

So far our Dear Santa letter reads something like this:

Dear Santa,

Hope all is well with you in the North Pole and that you and the elves are taking a little siesta every afternoon. We know how busy you are at this time of year. We hate to burden you with our wish list – but what the heck, 'tis the season and we've been a good boy and girl.

Top of the list is a new Yamaha 8 hp, 2-stroke outboard. We'd like this particular model because we already have one and can strip it for spare parts and we have some spares already stocked away.

Next are some new water pumps – it seems the water department aboard Astarte has gone on strike and things are breaking down. We need a new foot pump for the galley as well as a new pressure water pump for the system. Oh and while we're on water – there are issues with the hot water heater that hopefully we can repair, but if you have a spare in your bag, we'd just as willingly replace it as repair it!

The aft toilet is pretty old (original with the '87 boat) and though Michael replaced another o-ring this morning, the pump casing is cracked – and let's face it – we use this piece of equipment a lot.

Some new foam for the outdoor cushions would sure make our bottoms feel better for the big Pacific Ocean crossing. You should know about long trips though you seem to manage thousands and thousands of miles in one day. Our passage from Galapagos to Marquesas will take probably a month – that's a lot of sitting time on watches.

Fishing gear is always welcome because it seems we feed it to the fish instead of getting the fish to feed us. Plus, we hear its good trading or gift stock in the Pacific Islands (and we want to be nice to the islanders.)

Any food goodies will be gratefully accepted. Though can you make sure they are tinned? Otherwise they probably won't last. Canned meat other than chicken would be a treat as its a little hard to find and a bit pricey. We do have to provision for quite a long time. Though people eat everywhere, there are some items that are very expensive in the Pacific or difficult to find.

And finally, can you deliver a delayed gift? Steady wind and relatively calm seas for the long passages would be most welcome.

We know we've asked for a lot – but we would be most grateful if you could help with any of it. We've tried hard to be good to each other all year and help others whenever possible. Thanks in advance and if you can't get our way – we'll understand – but please be kind to those that really need some kindness this year.

Michael and Barbara and the good ship "S/V Astarte"

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

It is Thanksgiving Day in the States and though not a holiday in Panama we will be celebrating.

First, we want to thank our family and friends for being so supportive of our cruising dreams. We think of you daily and miss you. We are also thankful for all our loyal readers of this blog as well as those who take the time to stay in touch with us. We certainly appreciate the latest news from you as well as juicy gossip.

We left the last pirate hangout in Bluefields and made our way on Monday morning towards the next pirate hotspot – Portobello. The 140 mile trip took about 28 hours and wasn't the best passage. It started great with a good breeze to sail along with a current in our favor. We were making good time and the engine was off (yippee – saving fossil fuel $$ and making for a comfortable ride). Then the wind (which was forecast to stay coming from the west/northwest switched and ended up right on the nose for the last half of the trip. We first thought it was some local squalls causing the dramatic wind shift around 2200 (that's 10 pm), but it just lasted and lasted all the way into Portobello. The seas had a good 6 foot swell which wasn't bad, but when you added the wind chop from the opposite direction it was sloppy. But we made it into Portobello harbor around 1130 on Tuesday morning and found a spot. It's quite crowded in here as this is becoming quite the cruiser hangout. Just like in the olden days – this was a favorite pirate spot and the town of Portobello with its many forts was often looted, pillaged and plundered. So cruisers fit right in.

Our original plan was to head down to a group of islands Veraguas and then to the Chagras River. But all the rain that Panama has been getting over the last few weeks changed our plans. The Chagras is an outlet for the dam that holds the water into the Gatun Lake (for the Panama Canal). And when there is a lot of rain as there has been, they simply open the dam with absolutely no warning and let some water out. Now this massive amount of water running out of the river can create quite a current along with debris from trees and jungle. Many a sailboat has ended up thrown on shore, a reef or sandbar unable to cope with the sudden water surge. We decided it wasn't prudent to sit in the river and wait for this experience. Hopefully, we'll still make it to the River because the wildlife is supposedly magnificent. But we'll wait until after our haul-out in Colon for the new shaft.

So we opted for Portobello and here we sit. It's only about 20 miles from Colon so we'll have an easy run (weather permitting) into the marina for the haulout in early December. We also have phone and internet here so we can make our final arrangements for the work we need done.

Today, we'll get to enjoy a turkey dinner thanks to "Capt. Jacks" Jungle Bar. Jack is captain of the sailboat "Fantasy" (the boat built for that old TV show, Fantasy Island), and also owner of a hostel. Its the local cruiser hangout as well. He is hosting a potluck there today for Thanksgiving and our guess is that it will be packed based on the number of boats here. We are hoping to start to meet some folks who will also be going through the Canal and into the Pacific this season. We'll be bringing a green bean casserole "Patsy beans" and a chocolate cake "Astarte Decadence."

We wish all our family, friends and unknown readers a wonderful day. Be thankful for what you have. We certainly are!

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pirate Hangout

Whoohoo. We moved out of Bocas del Toro yesterday (Tuesday) and are anchored in Laguna de Bluefield or Bahia Azul. It is not named for the beautiful blue water but rather because it was a favorite hangout of the 17th century Dutch pirate, Blauvelt. We can see why, it looks like a great place to hide out and then attack!

Yesterday was a sunny day and we were grateful for the good light. We took an adventurous trip to leave Bocas via the Sumwood Channel. Channel is a bit of a misnomer – as getting into and out of the channel almost ran us aground several times. But we didn't hit and this was the first time that the guide book we were using wasn't quite as accurate as it has been in the past. We then ran a route through the Laguna de Chiriqui which has scattered reefs throughout. There is also a large aquaculture farm with many structures and markers. After that we headed into the Bluefields area. This is actually a large peninsula from the mainland. At the western end, it splits in the middle into two sides giving a bay with good protection.

We anchored on the southwestern corner in a place called Playa Raya. We chose this side, though it was probably more open to the swell, because it was away from the town. We don't think there are pirates here, unless you count the officials whom we understand like to charge boats a fee to anchor, to walk the island and to get to the Caribbean side. This side is beautiful with a palm studded beach, a few Ngobe Indian houses and lots of great bird, frog and bug sounds from the thick trees that surround the water. Several cayucas (open hand carved canoes) were out fishing, setting nets or just coming back to their homes yesterday. It is very peaceful and we are happy to be anchored here.

Our plan is to stay a few days, though if it gets too rolly we may wander to the other side. Today is swimming day though. This is the clearest water we've seen for awhile and it seems to be jelly fish free. Bocas was loaded with jellies of several varieties and even taking our salt water showers was challenging. We know we are near a reef because last night we had another spectacular display of the glow worms (Bermuda Fire Worms) doing their mating ritual. These bright neon green worms come to the surface after dark, swirl around and other critters dart into them and then there is an explosion of neon green. It was so dark here and they were so close to the boat it was amazing to watch. One of the best displays we've ever seen. The worm dance lasted several seconds and you could really see their mating partners dash into the dance. They are supposed to do this a few days after a full moon – so these guys seemed late – but there were hundreds of them.

Today is a sunny day – perfect for a little laundry then a good snorkel.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

After Hours Party

We're moving a bit slow today thanks to the incredible hospitality of Josef and Maria of Rana Azul and some fellow boaters. We went to Rana Azul for their Sunday afternoon dinner and to say our goodbyes to many of the folks we met here over the last few months. The "land" people tend to head there on Sundays and we thought it would be a good place to see everyone at once. Plus the food is always great and you never fail to have a good time. When our friend Tom came, he told us that the best time he had with us was the afternoon at Rana Azul.

So we upped our anchor from the one side of the lagoon and headed across the bay. We did stop in the middle to try to get the twists out of our anchor chain. We have new anchor chain (thanks again Tom) sitting and waiting for us in Panama City – and our current chain is all rusty and gets bad twists in it as we are dropping it or hauling it up. So we attempted to get some of the twists out of it, making a rusty mess of our foredeck and ourselves.

We re-anchored near Rana Azul. We headed in around noon and it was a small but friendly crowd and we enjoyed our feasts. Then we just hung around with our friends from Baros, Linda and Hans as well as a Dutch couple Yvonne and Andrew from the sailboat Windhond. Josef and Maria and their staff were also relaxing and we toasted someone's nineteenth birthday (the first extra round of beers). The famous house lemoncello was also brought out and shots of it were passed around (several times). The music was great and the dancing started along with the "singing" - which really was Josef's commentary on various songs with back-ups by Linda (and even Barbara who always wanted to be a back-up singer though she can't sing worth a darn). The evening proceeded with Slim and Gail from Miss Gail joining in the festivities and buying a round. The evening wore on with various discussions into the political arena, the music world and of course everyone's various personal experiences. Most of the group were Europeans – Josef and Maria are Austrians, Hans is Dutch, Linda Belgian, Yvonne and Andrew also Dutch and the others Americans. We always are a bit embarrassed that folks must speak English because we are around – and the amazing part is – they all can.

The evening wore on with singing, dancing, toasting and lots of laughing and fun. It was a great sendoff for us from Bocas and will be a night we treasure and remember.

Thanks to all our partying pals for making it a great night and to Josef and Maria for their generous hospitality. We're moving a tad slow this morning – and it is a rainy, grey day so we may or may not move on.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fixing Your Boat in Exotic Locations

That is often the definition of "cruising." There is the daily, weekly, monthly and annual boat maintenance projects like checking the oil, changing filters, working the thru-hulls, looking for chafe on lines and sails, waterproofing the bimini, greasing bits and pieces, de-greasing bits and pieces, and any number of projects to keep you busy. Then there are the unexpected problems. Things break or stop working. Many times it is at an inconvenient time and place. It is never a welcome event.

Yesterday (Monday) was a boat project day. Michael was going to re-install the new pump for the water maker. We have been lucky with enough rain collection to not need it since we returned to the boat in August/September. But we are at anchor in Bocas and decided it was as good a time as any to get it done before we headed south towards Colon. The weather didn't look good for the next few days for an early departure, so we decided this would be a good day to get that done.

It went in with a few moans, groans, swear words and boat bites...but, not a big issue. We'll hope that's still the case when we actually try to run it. Then Michael went to use the foot water pump in the galley (this is not at all connected to the other water project) Oh no, it's leaking and not working. Another project for the day. He takes it apart and its broken so he decides to attempt a repair with epoxy. Now you have to understand, every project on a boat requires you to find tools, bits and pieces, cleaners, rags, glues etc. Nothing is never easy as it usually requires unloading huge areas to find one small bit. And often times it's not where you thought it was so that means unloading another area. Then the epoxy is old and doesn't work so you need to find another batch. Every project takes much, much longer than it should. But it gets done – or at least epoxied and we'll see if it holds.

Lunch time. A break and Michael asks for a glass of water. Nothing comes out of the faucet. Nothing. It seems that today, the water department has gone on strike! Another issue because this has absolutely nothing to do with the newly installed water maker pump nor the galley water foot pump. A whole new problem. Perhaps we are out of water – though the gauge tells us we still have two lights. Hmmmmm.

Now this problem is actually a more serious concern. There is a lot of water in the bilge – fresh water. We proceed to empty bilge lockers (remember storage is everywhere about a boat!) The wine locker (bottles stored in socks) is soaked – so we empty all the bottles out of their socks so we can dry everything. We track the problem to the pressure water pump which seems to run non-stop or until it overheats and shuts itself down. This causes an incredible amount of pressure to build which now has caused the water heater pressure relief valve to open and flow into the bilge. Michael tries everything to seal this valve – but unfortunately the pressure is so high – everything he uses to plug a water hose won't work. The pressure is so great it actually pushes water through a wood plug's grain, He finally installs a valve that seems to hold as long as we don't run the pump very long.

Of course all these emergency repairs mean we're late for an invite aboard Sapphire. Bummer. We get things back together enough to make a quick dinghy run over for a drink and sympathy and as always, advice from other boaters.

Michael sleeps on the problem. It rains most of the night so thinking about water and water issues isn't a problem. Plus, luckily we get lots of rain collected in case we can't use the pump for awhile. In the morning, Michael asks on the morning radio net if anyone has a spare re-build kit for the bad water pump. Luckily, a friend on a nearby boat has exactly what we need. He does take apart the broken pump in the hopes of seeing something obvious that can be fixed – perhaps a bit of grit has jammed into a diaphragm to hold the pressure switch open. He does find a problem but it is a spring that is very corroded and beyond repair. He has used the rebuild kit from Tom on "Liberty" and re-installs the pressure water pump. After much testing it seems to work – the hot water heater still has an issue, but at least we have running water again.

One success and then on to re-installing the glued together foot pump for the galley. Installation completed – now the test – will the epoxy hold? Nope! It breaks again in the same place and water gets everywhere. Luckily fresh water. So back to uninstalling and trying another type of glue. The offending part of the pump is now clamped and setting up, this time with super glue not epoxy .… will it hold tomorrow? Stay tuned.

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Independence Days

There are lots of holidays in Panama. And most have to do with Independence. Many are in November. There is Independence Day, Independence from Spain, Independence from Colombia, and Colon Independence. There is also Flag Day (today) and in honor of today we will hoist a new Panamanian flag. If you have an old, faded or torn flag you can be fined $50. So we bought a new one as our old one has a few wind-torn areas.

There are eight holidays this month (including Day of the Dead, all the Independce Days, Flag Day and then various days celebrating specific cities including Bocas del Toro) and the rules change with the various days. Some are considered BIG holidays and others are smaller one. That means various shops are or are not open, the government offices charge overtime (an issue for us when trying to clear in and out of areas), and on some days you can't buy alcohol. The noise level also changes depending on the various holidays – some have parades in town, lots of boat traffic and partiers. Other days are more normal. We have heard the local Bocas drum lines practicing nightly – probably getting ready for some parade or other.

Yesterday (Thursday), we decided to test our new Hong Kong sail that Tom brought us from the states. It is a large asymmetrical drifter – a very large, light air, downwind headsail. We bought this sail anticipating our Pacific crossing with light winds coming from our stern. This sail comes in a large "sock" so it looks like 50 foot blue sausage when hung before being deployed. The winds yesterday were light and the perfect conditions to test her out. So we motored to Bahia Almirante where we would have some room to maneuver (without reefs) and put her to the test. And we failed. Michael got it rigged okay and it actually deployed pretty well (though the sock didn't seem to want to go all the way up). But when it came time to "snuff" it – which means pulling the sock back down over the open sail, it would only go about half way and then jam. We tried several times and then when Michael was totally worn out we headed back to Bocas.

We took the large blue sausage ashore and borrowed a lage piece of grass to unfold and repack the sail in its sock thinking that some of the lines probably got twisted inside. It looks like there was a fair amount of twists – so we repacked and will hopefully test again over the next few days. This big sail will take some pratice but we hope it will serve us well. The time we had it up yesterday, with the wind blowing only about five knots, we were going about 4.3 knots. So it does work well and pulls our boat nicely.

We're back in the BocasTown area after our bat cave adventure on Bastiamentos. By the way, the scary looking bugs we saw in the cave (photos on the photo album) are a Tailless Whip Scorpion and a large cricket. The scorpion was one large and very scary looking insect...especially in a subterranian environment!

Our boat documentation papers and a few small items arrived yesterday with Doug from "Yellow Shoes" so we'll collect those today and invite the courrier and his wife to dinner aboard as our thank you. Otherwise, it a bit of provisioning and then getting ready to head south next week.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Real Halloween Adventure: The Bat Cave

We may be a day late, but today we had a great adventure. This morning we took our dinghy 2.2 miles, then up a river at the tip of Isla Bastiamentos and ended up at Juan's property. It is a lovely piece of land. The path to get on the property is lined with pineapple plants and bananas and plantains are growing nearby. Lots of cocao trees are also fruiting, Chickens, dogs and kids are around the small house and there we met our tour guide, Juan. His compatriot young Aldoberto came along as well (he was the monkey spotter.) Juan speaks no English, so included in the tour was the daily Spanish lesson. We think we understood most of what he was telling us.

Before we got to the cave we hiked along a rather muddy path and saw several sloths, very cool orange poison dart frogs, various different plants, and Aldoberto did manage to spot a white-faced monkey in the trees. We had to stop talking and approached quietly so we could all get to see the rather large monkey.

Then, the giant cave was at the end of the trail. It actually was a bit scary looking into this large dark hole. We had been warned to wear clothes that you could get wet and muddy. The cave is quite long with several different chambers – some very large and others so narrow, you walked through holding on to both sides of the rocks. The water was also at different levels from ankle deep to chin high (for short Barbara). The end chamber is a very deep pool fed by a lovely small waterfall and is deep enough for young Aldoberto to dive into doing various flips and sommersaults as he jumped off the rocks. So we waded through the adventure.

There were large stalactites growing down from the ceiling of the cave dripping with cold water. The temperature in the cave was actually chilly and the water was cold. This is a great adventure for a hot day.

It's called a bat cave for a reason. There are lots and lots of bats that call this hole in the rocks “home sweet home.” You could look up and see them snoozing in the nooks and crannies. There were many, many bats though that were wide awake and seemed to take great pleasure in swooping down and coming very close. Perhas they were attracted by the lights. They got so close to you, you could almost feel their wings hit you and you certainly could hear the whooshing sound as they flew. They were fruit bats and some of these very critters may have feasted on Astarte bananas!

We followed Juan as he led us through the various chambers of the cave – giving us warnings where there were rock ledges and deep water holes. We were wearhing headlamps as was Juan, though young Aldoberto seemed content to roam around in the dark. It was pitch black in the back chambers where no light came in through the opening.

Michael took lots of photos, but unfortunately, our new underwater camera got very foggy because of the cold water and humdity. So most of the pictures look like they are haunted with ghosts.

In the last chamber, there is a small waterfall that feeds into the cave and is very soothing sounding amongst the flurry of bat activity. The pool in this chamber is deep enough that Barbara couldn't touch the bottom. You can get a good soak and swim in here, which we both did.

It was a very fun adventure that we were glad we did. We had planned to do it a week ago, but we got rained out. There were points in the cave where you could see high water lines (or leaves stuck in the rocks). It would not be a good place to be in a sudden downpour. But today, was a sunny, beautiful day – the perfect day for bat man and his sidekick to head to the cave.