Memories from Vanuatu

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In our years of cruising to small out-of-the-way Pacific island nations, we have accumulated fond memories of places that many Americans barely know exist. When these small countries suffer a disaster, we always want to help out monetarily to support the recovery efforts, as a payback for the hospitality invariably extended to us by the warm and generous people of these islands.

Last weekend Hurricane Pam clobbered the small island nation of Vanuatu in what may have been one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike in the Pacific. Even now the extent of damage is not fully known, but reports are coming in of near total devastation caused by a direct hit from this Category 5 storm. 90-95% of the homes, buildings and infrastructure have been destroyed in the capitol city of Port Vila and on the outer islands. In these traditional village societies that survive via sustenance gardening and fishing, the gardens and fruit trees have been flattened. The hand-hewn wooden outrigger canoes used for fishing, and which take months to build, are splintered and sunk. Flimsy homes built of wood and coconut thatched roofs are completely gone. Entire villages are totally wiped out.

Fortunately the death toll is lower than expected, thanks to early warnings of the storm and survival skills honed over 5,000 years of living on these disaster prone islands. Rescuers are finding out now that self-sufficient villagers buried supplies of food, coconuts and water in advance of the storm. They took shelter in special triangular cyclone huts built specifically to withstand cyclones, as well as in copra kilns or in the few concrete buildings shared within a community such as a school or a church.

I looked online for ways to donate to relief organizations trying to help out. New Zealand and Australia are the nations most active in coming to the aid of the ‘ni Vanuatu’ (people of Vanuatu), as the country is located about 1200 miles east and north of these two larger nations. But there are some American organizations pitching in as well; if you’d like to send some funds to help out, CNN has published a list of organizations accepting donations to fund relief efforts in Vanuatu at this link:

CNN List of Vanuatu Relief Organizations

In the meanwhile, I thought I’d post a few photos from happier times as we cruised among the Vanuatu islands aboard AVATAR during her very first cruising season in 2010. Below are the ladies of William’s Bay on the island of Erromango, proud of the feast that was days in the making, to be shared with a visiting group of missionaries from Samoa. The event was a peace offering in apology for the murder and ritual cannibalization of two early missionaries that took place in 1839!

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The village chief sent us a formal written invitation to join the villagers and their visitors for an evening of feasting, music and dancing at the community building and grounds. Our ‘hostess gift’ was some petrol to help fuel the community generator which was needed to power the lights and music for the party. Rod was also drafted for some diagnostic support to troubleshoot said generator.

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Fishing and small local gardens are the main source of food for the rural villages on the outer islands, as well as free range chickens and pigs, and the occasional cow. Here the men are netting fish from the beach at sunset. Presumably the beautiful coral reefs surrounding these islands have also been ravaged by the force of the hurricane surge.

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In Erromango we were given a tour of the burial caves, high up on cliffs facing the ocean, that contained the bones of the ancestors. The fierce cyclones jumble the skeletons but the villagers return to tidy things up and pay their respects.

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The women do their laundry in the river, downstream from where the village obtains its drinking water.

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Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 7.53.07 PMIt’s easy to coax smiles from the local kids for a photograph. Afterwards they cluster around the camera to see a replay on the digital LCD screen. Notice the one shy exception behind the canoe!

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It takes months to carve these outrigger canoes from trees on the islands. They are important for transportation as well as fishing. Presumably most have been destroyed by the hurricane. This is Tom from Havana Bay, a low lying rural area not far from the capitol city of Port Vila.

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I took a walk on the island of Efate one hot afternoon and met a local man who invited me for a drink from a green coconut and a tour of his extensive gardens. He sent me home laden with so many gifts of fruit and vegetables from his garden, including a watermelon, that I could barely stagger back to the boat.

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The island of Tanna was also in the direct path of Hurricane Pam, with reports of 95% total destruction. Tanna is the home of Mt. Yasur, one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. We had a highly memorable evening climbing to the edge of the caldera at twilight to see, and photograph, the fireworks.

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Click on any image below for a full-screen slideshow.

 

Horse & Style Magazine

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 3.28.57 PMThis has been a great year for publicity for my photographic efforts. Another magazine contacted me last month in regards to featuring my photos in a two-page spread. I was on AVATAR at the time but luckily happened to be in a marina with good wifi, and also I had the forethought to bring my image library archives with me on the trip! So I was able to provide the images and take advantage of the opportunity. This is the third magazine to feature my photography in just the past five months!

So without further introduction, here is a link to the attractive two-page spread, Behind The Lens, published in the February/March issue of Horse & Style Magazine. What’s nice is that even though the magazine is equestrian themed, they asked to include some of my travel photography as well.

If you click on any of the images below, you will open up a full screen slideshow of the photographs included in the spread above.

 

Hello Caribbean, Goodbye Pacific!

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Hello Caribbean! We cleared the last lock of the Panama Canal yesterday early afternoon and we’ve officially arrived in Atlantic waters.

Goodbye Pacific Ocean! Our entire cruising career has been spent in the Pacific’s blue waters and we have experienced a lifetime of amazing experiences squeezed into a single decade. We are sad to leave it behind.

Transiting the Panama Canal from one sea to another was a major highlight in all our cruising adventures. It did not go according to plan, at least not according to the plan we were expecting, but apparently that is standard operating procedure on the Canal – everything changes all the time!

Our agent, Roy Bravo of Emmanuel Agencies, arranged for us to depart early Saturday morning with a schedule that called for us to meet our official pilot at 9 a.m. and complete the transit by 6:30 p.m. that same day. We were absolutely thrilled to be given a daytime slot as the Canal operates 24/7 and a night passage was a strong possibility.

Based on the size of our boat, regulations required us to have four line handlers on board, also four long ropes (lines) and a generous collection of rubber fenders. Roy provided three experienced men for line handlers (May was to be drafted as the fourth, if needed) and an inventory of lines and bumpers. The Panama Canal authority provides a pilot to accompany every vessel and give specific instructions as to how to proceed. Our captain Rod did the driving (admirably, I might add), but the pilot calls the shots.

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As we got underway, our adventure unfolded as follows. Per instructions, Saturday morning we sailed offshore to await the arrival of our pilot between Sea Buoys #4 and #6. Pilots are delivered to their assigned vessels by an official canal pilot boat that pulls alongside close enough for him to climb over the rail from one boat to the other.

Having acquired a pilot, AVATAR embarked on a seven mile voyage that took us into the channel entrance, under the Bridge of the Americas, and approached the Miraflores Locks, which lifted us two steps up. Then a mile long sail across Lake Miraflores to enter the third set of locks, the Pedro Miguel locks, which took us up another flight to the top level of the canal. At this uppermost level, we were now 26 meters above sea level.

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To navigate through we were assigned to a side channel with three other vessels: a two-decker tour ferry packed with tourists, a 35 meter sailing yacht, and a lightweight fiberglass skiff. Procedure had the first boat, the tour ferry, maneuver into position against the concrete lock wall on its port side where line handlers on land high above work with line handlers on boats below to secure them safely to the wall. The second boat, in this case the sailboat, then rafted up against the starboard side of the ferry.

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AVATAR followed behind, also tying up to the wall of the lock, and the smallest boat rafted alongside us. Complicating the maneuvering are the variables of wind gusts (it was windy), and currents created by prop wash from other boats, the mixing of fresh and salt water, and the inflow and outflow of the water filling and draining from the locks.

Once we were all securely fastened together, the lock was sealed and gradually flooded, which caused us to be lifted up elevator fashion as the water level rose. Once the lock was completely filled, matching the water height in the next lock, all four boats disconnected from each other and sailed single file through the opened gates into the next chamber where the entire tying up and rafting procedures were repeated, and then again at the third and final lock of the Pacific side. Webcam photos courtesy of Mike, who monitored our transit via computer at home in Tucson!

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From the Pedro Miguel lock we sailed seven scenic miles along a waterway named the Gaillard Cut, carved out of the mountainsides in stepped terraces.

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The Gaillard Cut opens up into Lake Gatun, a manmade lake some 164 square miles in area, created by damming up the Río Chagres as the final step in completing the Canal back in the early 1900s. It is a 21 mile sail across the lake, before approaching the three consecutive Gatun Locks where we were to be stepped down to sea level again on the Caribbean side.

This is where our schedule took a big hit. We had suffered three or four small delays to the original timetable, to be taken in stride, but as we approached the Gatun Locks we were told we would not be going through until the next morning! Instead we were instructed to anchor in the lake overnight. Keep in mind, we had three extra guys on board who needed to be fed and housed for the duration. The pilot was picked up by a pilot boat and spirited away, but our three line handlers settled in for the night.

AVATAR doesn’t have the space to sleep six, so Rod situated them in the flying bridge with comfy cushions, blankets and pillows. Lucky for them we had installed an enclosure for the flying bridge last spring in San Diego, as it rained twice during the night (first rain we’ve seen in a month). We were even able to offer a nice freshwater shower on the aft swim step with the handheld spray nozzle and warm water. We had made plans to feed our hired crew lunch on transit day, but now May had to conjure up dinner, followed by breakfast and lunch the following day, as well!

Next morning we woke to the sight of a parade of behemoth ships patiently lined up waiting their slot to transit the Gatun Locks. Our turn finally came, following a pancake breakfast and the arrival of a new pilot on board, and we were on our way again.

Somehow, to me, the downward journey was even more exciting. This time we shared a lock with only two other boats – the same sailboat, Manutara, moored to the wall, with AVATAR rafting alongside.

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But the third ‘boat’ in our lock was the oil tanker Nina Victory, 181 meters long, 32 meters wide, weighing 46,000 tons when fully loaded. Nina Victory looked especially large as it was maneuvered into position just off our stern! These huge ships are controlled in the locks by electric locomotives called mules, costing $2.4 million each. Four of these engines were assigned to the Nina Victory. The ship moves forward under its own power but hydraulically operated cables winched under the control of operators in the mules control its position within the walls. Even so, the paint along the sides of the big ships takes a beating. The term ‘Panamax’ refers to the maximum sized ship that can fit through the Panama Canal locks. Nina Victory was pushing the limits of width, if not length.

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The size of the locks are mind-boggling. To give you an idea – if one was lifted out of the ground and stood upright on end, it would be taller than the Empire State Building, the tallest building in existence at the time the locks were built. To move just one ship through the series of locks flushes 52 million gallons of fresh water (enough to meet the entire needs of a large city for a couple of days) into the sea, and yet each lock fills (or empties) smoothly in 10 minutes or less. The fresh water is sourced from two lakes including Lake Gatun, and replenished by rainfall of 101 inches per year. However in modern times, these locks are still not big enough to accommodate the biggest ships in the world – and so a $5.5 billion project is currently underway to provide additional, even larger locks. Read here for more fascinating details of canal transit and the need for expansion.

Accomplished in the late 1800s and very early 1900s, the building of the Panama Canal was an amazing engineering feat. Its history encompasses the national pride of four nations (France, the U.S., Columbia and Panama), idealism, political maneuvering, scandals, fortunes gained and lost, a revolution and the creation of a new republic, and triumphs of technology in the same window of time that saw the invention of the automobile and the airplane.  More than 20,000 lives were lost building the canal just to the mosquito borne diseases of yellow fever and malaria. If you are intrigued, again I recommend the outstanding National Book Award-winning book The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough that ferrets out every riveting detail of an epic story.

Our own canal crossing was but a tiny blip in the history of this canal, but to us it was a very special achievement.

For a full screen slideshow of the above and additional images, click on any thumbnail below:

 

# 6009305

CBPP_20150128_Panama-466-MFriday January 30 – We’re here! We have arrived in Panama City, 1727 miles from Ixtapa, 1367 additional miles from San Diego, and 1375 miles more from Seattle, 4469 miles in total! We’ve nabbed a berth in the crowded marina on the Pacific side thanks to the agent Rod had the foresight to hire to expedite our canal crossing. Now we’re waiting to find out when we will be assigned our slot for the canal crossing, most likely tomorrow or Sunday.

We arrived here Wednesday afternoon in the same brisk conditions that made that final day’s leg across the Gulf of Panama a bit challenging. The late afternoon light and moisture laden atmosphere combined to make Panama City’s big city skyline glow ethereally on the horizon like the Emerald City of Oz – silver skyscrapers, the graceful Bridge of the Americas stretching across to verdant hills, ships and boats coming and going from all angles. So many ships, each one represented by the AIS on AVATAR’s electronic navigation screens as a green triangle, that the green markers were clumped so thickly they looked more like a land mass than vessels at anchor. The shipping lanes have actual traffic control, on the Flamenco channel, just like airplanes at an airport.

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Great numbers of birds were in feeding frenzies, pelicans falling out of the sky in their kamikaze dives and flocks of seagulls thrashing the wave tops chasing after schools of baitfish trapped near the surface by schools of larger fish attacking from below, all in dinner mode. It was an awesome photo opportunity except AVATAR was bucking her way head on through the choppy waves, so that of the 600-700 photos I took in burst mode, only the very luckiest ones offer even a semblance of sharp focus. So my apologies for technical imperfections – these are offered in the spirit of sharing the scene, if not photographic expertise!

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CBPP_20150128_Panama-294-M-3We spent our first night rolling in the anchorage at the entrance to the (completely full) marina, but our agent in Panama secured us a spot for the next few nights, so now we have power, air conditioning, Internet, restaurants, taxis, etc. all conveniently at hand. Security seems to be a consideration; all the shops and offices for the marina are kept locked and are opened by remote when we rattle their doors. A couple of marines in camouflage are stationed nearby, and security guards man the gateways. The guidebooks advise care in not straying off the beaten track of the tourist friendly areas of town.

There are a lot of logistics involved in going through the canal, sharing the way with huge ocean-going freighters, cruise ships, tugs, sightseeing boats, other yachts, and alligators (the only ones to get a free pass – local joke). We definitely thought it was the better part of valor to employ an agent to handle the fees and paperwork, both for customs and the canal, as well as provide extra equipment including ropes and bumpers, and also the extra labor force required to go through. Roy Bravo of Emmanuel Agencies came highly recommended, and we were exceedingly pleased when we met him in the marina to observe how seamlessly he was expediting our visit.

We have officially been assigned the number 6009305 which will be AVATAR’s permanent Panama Canal ship identification number, in case we ever pass this way again! For transit we will require four experienced line handlers plus a licensed pilot to make the transit, which involves a series of rising locks from the Pacific side, a 48 mile cruise along the canal waterway and across Lake Gatun (carved out of the former Chagres River valley through  the mountains – an epic task), and then a descent through the series of locks on the Caribbean side back to sea level. The trip should take most of the day, possibly even longer. This 48 mile ‘shortcut’ saves 4,000 miles of ocean travel circumnavigating South America to arrive in the same place!

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There are three channels through the locks, a central channel and the two side channels. Roy advises that to assure a daytime passage we should opt for the center, for which we are eligible as long as we exceed 65′ in boat length (we will be officially measured today by canal representatives – from the tip of AVATAR’s anchor on the bow to the brackets of the swim step on her stern), and are able to maintain a speed of 10 knots (not a problem). We are to be rafted to the side of another vessel within the locks. It would have been a devastating disappointment to be assigned a night slot for the transit, arriving on the far side at one a.m. in the morning! No scenery and no photo ops for what most likely will be a once in a lifetime experience.

While we wait, AVATAR will get a good freshwater washdown to get rid of the salt, and we’ll fit in some sightseeing as well as a celebratory dinner out in old town Panama.

More to come!

Almost There!

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Wednesday January 28 – Two days ago we rounded Punta Mariato in Panama, the southernmost point of our voyage at latitude 7º N. We’re now on our way north! The time zone has transitioned into EST which we discovered when one of our out-of-reception cellphones locked onto a stray signal and switched over. Rather than get confused by conflicting timepieces and cellphones, we adjusted our schedule to what Rod named ‘Oven Time’ and agreed to coordinate our day and night watches by the clock on AVATAR’s galley stove!

Our first landfall in Panama was an overnight anchorage in peaceful Bahía Honda. The scenery there was much more verdant than anywhere else on the trip so far. January thru April is the hot dry season in Central America, and it was surprising to see the drought stressed growth all along the coastline when we were expecting steamy green jungles. Panama is starting to catch up with our imaginings.

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The anchor had barely set on the bottom when a small wooden local boat came racing out to greet us, a man with his little boy on a trading mission. Supplies are few and far between when you live in a remote and tiny coastal village with no road and many miles by open boat to go shopping in town, assuming you even have cash to spend. Our visitor introduced himself as Kennedy and his son as Octavio, and he was hoping to use his huge sack of slightly over-the-hill lemons as currency for some shopping needs.

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Items on his shopping list included cookies or candy for his son and perhaps a Coca Cola for himself. After that, D batteries for his flashlight so he could scare aware the critters preying on his chickens in the night, a backpack for his teenage daughter for her school supplies, fishing line, hooks and lures for catching the small fish in the bay. He also suggested that when we arrived at our destination in Panama City’s Balboa Harbor we could get on the VHF radio on the yachting frequency and spread the word to other boaters that, should they pass near Bahia Honda, they might stop over and ask for Kennedy by name. We scrounged up what we could from ship’s stores and declined the lemons, but bargained for a couple of plantains and grapefruit instead.

We’ve had a pretty benign trip the entire distance from Mexico to Panama, with a following current giving us a speed boost and weather cooperating nicely. But this last leg into Balboa has taken a turn for the worse. We only have about 130 miles to go, but the forecast is for windy conditions for a solid week at least, fueled by cold weather systems in the states that push fronts across the isthmus. In addition we need to round Punta Mala (Bad Point), a true cape named for its strong currents and nasty sea state. And then we need to cross the Gulf of Panama, the third of three gulfs, including Tehuantepec and Papagallo, that share a reputation for strong winds and steep waves, especially this time of year.

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We got an early start this morning and hit Punta Mala at daybreak. It’s definitely windy with steep chop, but the forecasts are predicting worse as the week wears on, so this is our window of opportunity. AVATAR is slogging through the rough stuff admirably and Rod is hugging the shore again for protection. The pillow is stuffed back into the china cupboard for only the second time in three weeks. Four sailing yachts that shared last night’s anchorage with us would not be able to handle these conditions so they’ll probably be holed up there for awhile.

We had planned an idyllic week cruising the scenic island group named Las Perlas*, but the weather appears to have scotched that idea, so it’s direct to the canal now. The white towers of Panama City are shimmering on the horizon in the moisture laden air as we approach. We’ll be adjusting our plans as we go and I’ll keep you up to date…more later!

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*An interesting side note, Las Perlas were named by the Spanish in the early 1500s for the pearls found there. Seizing them for their own, the Spanish killed off every single native in the archipelago within two years, and then used slaves to dive for the pearls to add to the plundered riches shipped back home to Spain. The most famous was the 31 carat La Peregrina, an enormous pear-shaped white pearl, that earned freedom for the slave pearl diver who found it. King Philip II of Spain gave it to his wife Queen Mary Tudor of England as a wedding gift, and centuries later Richard Burton purchased it for US$37,000 as a gift for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. It was auctioned off in 2011 as part of her estate for $11 million dollars.

Click on any image below to open a full screen slideshow of all images.

Costa Rica

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Thursday’s sail took us just over the border from Nicaragua into Costa Rica. It was a windy day, gusting nearly to 40, and the waves, though small, were whipped into whitecaps. Rod kept as close to shore as he could, taking advantage of the wind shadow, and by end of the day our recorded track on the chart looked more like a beach walk than a sail! Even so, AVATAR was well coated in salt spray when we reached our overnight destination. It did afford us a close up view of some pretty impressive mansions spaced along the Nicaraguan coast, most memorably this solar powered creation striking for its blue domes.

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CBPP_20150122_CostaRica-331-MIt was a pleasure to pull into the protected waters of Bahía Santa Elena, according to Rod the first anchorage deserving of the term for the past 4,000 miles. Per plan we arrived before dark, in time to relax and appreciate the sunset accompanied by fish and rays leaping out of the water, frigatebirds wheeling overhead, and the blow of two whales sharing our secluded bay. There was a continual racket from land, but it wasn’t until my morning kayak that I could identify the source – flocks of yellow naped Amazon parrots squawking in the trees along the beach.

Bahía Santa Elena is located within one of Costa Rica’s many national parks, as about 25% of the country is preserved in parkland. The next day when we we cleared in at Marina Papagayo in Bahía Culebra, we were within easy driving distance of multiple national parks. Our route from Santa Elena to Culebra took us across the Gulf of Papagayo, reputedly the next windiest stretch of water along this coast since Tehuantepec. But for us the water was flat calm and the only obstacles along the way besides some starkly bleak islands and rock outcroppings were the dozens of sea turtles floating on the surface. Their shell backs make an olive brown mound in the water, often adorned by a seabird perched on top, until they register our approach at which time they raise their heads out of the water for a quick look before disappearing in a flurry of a splash to get out of the way.

Using the links below you can see and interact with our track on the internet from Bahía Santa Elena to Bahía Culebra, or download a file that will let you ‘fly’ the track using Google Earth.

Track recorded with Navionics App.

View it: http://tinyurl.com/n7atwhx
Download it: http://tinyurl.com/kt5ervo

CBPP_20150123_CostaRica-136-M-2Culebra means snake, thus the marina’s choice of Papagayo as a more tourist enticing name. Here we caught up with D’Natalin IV from weeks past, and shared dock space with a 300 foot superyacht, rather grandiosely named Pacific, rumored to belong a Russian billionaire.

For shore leave we rented a car and drove inland to visit the park Rincon de la Vieja which encompasses a volcano of that name. We stretched our legs hiking park trails that led to waterfalls, hot springs, steaming fumaroles and bubbling mud pots, interspersed with tropical forest populated by a variety of animals not seen in the wild in North America – monkeys, tapirs, anteaters, exotic birds, butterflies the size of dinner plates.

We did recognize a squirrel, but it had a ringed tail and blotchy cream and sable coloring. Rod and May spotted a huge blue butterfly which I missed because I was picking my way across stepping stones in a muddy stream. But I was able to photograph a small animal the size of a football that, after researching it on the web, turns out to be a Central American agouti, common to Panama. We also spied a large crested bird the size of a goose, as yet unidentified since I don’t have a bird ID book for this part of the world. I managed to capture a partial photograph of it hiding in the brush – not exactly in the ‘keeper’ category but most likely the only photo I’ll ever capture of this particular species;-)

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CBPP_20150123_CostaRica-146-MWhat we saw of Costa Rica gave the appearance of a more solid economy than that of neighboring Nicaragua. The horses in Nicaragua were pathetically skinny creatures put to hard use pulling farm carts at the trot or even canter down the roadways, but in Costa Rica the livestock was fat and well cared for. In the highlands we frequently passed mounted cowboys with elaborately fringed and tasseled tack astride small but sturdy horses. The farm fields, predominately sugarcane as elsewhere, seemed more lush and well tended, and the surrounding native land more pristine.

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The marina where we stayed was part of a high end development offering every amenity for visitors and residents. The entire peninsula has been platted for a resort destination, accomodating upscale residences, apartments, and hotel properties anchored by not only the marina but a gorgeous golf course, beautiful landscaping, ocean vistas, and the Four Seasons Beach Club and restaurant.

To match all this luxury, prices for everything from a beer to real estate were stiff – as much or more than I would expect to pay for the same thing in the states – dramatically more than anywhere else on this entire trip from Mexico onwards. Real estate signs alongside the country roads showed price tags of US$24 per square meter.

Next post – Panama. Almost there!

Click on any photo below to open a slideshow of the above photos and additional images.

Another Day, Another Country

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When we left Puerto Barillas we only had an 85 mile day hop scheduled to transit from El Salvador to its neighbor Nicaragua. Once clear of the estuary and headed offshore the remainder of the trip was uneventful. We arrived at our next stop, Puesto del Sol, which means sunset in Spanish, just in time to enjoy the actual setting of the sun.

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From what Rod had been told and read in cruising guides, this is the only marina worth visiting the length of the Nicaraguan coast and it definitely offered all the amenities – from well lit channel markers to guide us safely in, to fast internet (always a plus), a good restaurant, walking trails, an expansive west facing beach perfect for sunset viewing, and the added perk of an assortment of photogenic birds right next to the marina docks.

On our layover day we hired a minivan with driver for one of our rare inland forays, electing to visit the historic colonial city of León. It was an hour and a half drive each way, along one of those demanding two lane highways that requires a certain skill set to negotiate. The road itself was fine as it wound through farmland and local towns. The challenge was to navigate the nonstop parade of vehicles that shared the pavement – heavy trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, horse drawn farm carts, and bicycle-powered taxi carts – and along the shoulder families with small children, market stalls, horses and cattle tied out to graze, plus random dogs, goats, pigs, and chickens running loose. None seemed especially motivated to give way. Venturing into the oncoming traffic lane in order to pass slower traffic is a nail-biter for gringoes. Luckily our driver, Luis, was unfazed and delivered us safely to the city center where he parked and waited while we explored for a few hours, before returning safely back to the marina.

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The original León was founded In 1524 by the Spanish, but after a series of natural disasters the city was relocated to its present site in 1610. As it was the capitol city during colonial days and the religious center of the entire region, León abounds with beautiful old churches and buildings. The city is vibrant and colorful, although a bit worn around the edges at 400+ years of age, with a reputation for lively intellectualism and revolutionary fervor.

With so many choices and so little time, we elected to tour the Basílica Catedral de la Asunción. Construction on this incredible cathedral was started in 1747 and lasted for more than 100 years, labor provided primarily by the indigenous natives. Originally the plans submitted to the powers to be in Peru were modest in scope, but once approval was granted León’s city leaders and the architect pulled a bait-and-switch to create this extravagant Spanish baroque styled beauty instead.

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The cathedral is the largest in all Central America with a footprint that takes up an entire city block. The interior inspires with lofty vaulted ceilings and masterpieces of Spanish American art, but we were particularly intrigued by the promise of a rooftop tour. We skirted the cathedral’s perimeter, quizzing local taxi drivers, until we found the small entry door that took us upwards via narrow stone stairwells until we emerged in the bell tower with an expansive view of the city and countryside beyond, spiked by more than a dozen volcanoes.

From the bell tower we were allowed to remove our shoes and walk out on the smoothly plastered roof itself. Domed turrets marched from end to end, counterparts to the interior ceiling vaults. The entire vast expanse was freshly whitewashed and blindingly white in the glare of reflected midday sun. By the time we finished exploring my face was red and dripping with sweat.

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Fortunately Rod had already scouted a location for lunch on the recommendation of another American boater in the marina. From the cathedral we walked a few blocks to Hotel El Convento, an actual convent in former centuries, welcoming with lush gardens, soothing shade, and a collection of fabulous Spanish Colonial furnishings. It was the perfect spot to cool down from our rooftop exertions. The food was good, too!

CBPP_20150120_Nicaragua-261-M-4We made it back to AVATAR in time to pack ingredients for a portable Happy Hour, and carried them to the beach to take in the setting sun for the last time at Puesto del Sol. Then to bed, with the alarm clocks set for a predawn departure en route to the next country on our route, Costa Rica.

Click on any photo below to play a slideshow of the above photos and more.

 

 

Usulután, El Salvador

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Among the highlights of our brief Puerto Barillas stopover in El Salvador was a provisioning trip to the chaotic (at least on market days) little city of Usulután, seated in the shadow of Volcán Usulután. We hitched a ride on the marine club van, bouncing down a dusty dirt road past expansive sugarcane fields en route to town, where we hit both the modern supermarket and also the traditional open air mercado across the street. Friday must be the big shopping day because the streets were jammed with what appeared to be thousands of people crowding the market. We saw weatherbeaten rancheros wearing cowboy hats and 3 foot long machetes holstered in leather scabbardss, local ladies wearing frilly little aprons and balancing their loads (everything from egg crates stacked six high, to bundles of fruit, to a festive tray of street food snacks) atop their heads, and men in camouflage pants quite possibly left over from their days as guerrillas in the civil war that ended in 1992.

The currency of El Salvador is the US dollar and in the market one dollar appeared to be the standard asking price for just about anything – for a kilo of mangoes or a bag generously filled with tomatoes or limes (actually limes are expensive – $2 per bag). You could buy anything from a slice of watermelon and a glass of lemonade to a side of beef to a floor length evening gown in the open air booths lining the market alleys. However for lunch we opted to forego the local cuisine and instead went to the modern air conditioned Pizza Hut where we made the mistake of sitting by a window where kids on the sidewalk tapped repeatedly and pressed their noses to the glass trying for our attention and presumably another dollar.

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Back at the resort we strolled through a section of Bahía de Jiquilisco, a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve, where we hand fed bananas to a tribe of spider monkeys after our guide called them down from the treetops by name (María and Pancho). As best I understood from our guide, there are several species of monkeys in El Salvador, but their numbers were severely depleted during the civil war when they were shot by the combatants, more for sport and target practice than for food. This particular group of 30 monkeys are escapees from a zoo, living free and safe in an ecological preserve while enjoying handouts from the tourists.

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AVATAR was tied to a mooring at Puerto Barillas, in the wide quiet waters of the river that mirrored reflections like glass. I spent one morning side-tracked from bird photography, kayaking instead amongst a fleet of dilapidated shrimp boats that are gradually disintegrating along the mangrove banks.

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Our next stop will be in Nicaragua at a marina that has received rave reviews in our cruising guides. More to come.

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Chiapas, Mexico

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We are still heading south and east, having entered Nicaraguan waters as I write. Our last port of call in Mexico was Marina Chiapas in Puerto Madero, only 12 miles from the Guatemalan border, where we stayed for 2 nights after our Gulf of Tehuantepec transit.

Each stop at a new port entails a thorough customs procedure, whereby we are met by a platoon of officials and marines to check our credentials and process both our entry and exit paperwork. In Chiapas we were greeted by seven uniformed officers, of which five crowded into AVATAR’s salon to handle the paperwork and inspect the boat, while the remaining two stayed on deck, one armed with an M16 and the other handling his drug sniffing dog, in this case a Belgian Malinois. All were friendly, courteous and professional, with smiles and a handshake all around, also a warning in Spanish regarding the dog – ‘muerde, muerde’ (she bites!).

Our rudimentary Spanish and their limited English sufficed to get us through the formalities with minimal confusion, although it helped to keep a sharp ear open for misunderstandings such as ’The name of your boat is Tucson, sí?’ Two days later, when we were ready to depart, the same contingent returned for a repeat of the exercise. And on the middle day, helpfully accompanied by a marina employee who knew the ropes and was fluently multi-lingual (there were yachts from eight different countries in the marina during our stay), we also spent a couple of hours at the Aduana (customs office) waiting our turn to process more paperwork.

Puerto Madero has an attractive and modern marina, tucked away down a mangrove lined side channel out of sight from the sprawling main harbor which also houses a Naval base, a cruise ship terminal, a fishing fleet port, and a Nestles instant coffee plant. We had trouble even finding it, until a small boat from the marina came out and waved us in. Looming on the horizon are two volcanoes. The largest, Volcán Tacaná, is 13,484 feet in height with half its roots in Mexico and the other half in Guatemala. Both are active, the smaller venting smoke and ash on occasion, and Tacaná, which last erupted in 1986, currently sealed off but responsible for the 200 earthquakes a year that rattle the area. In fact, we were told, we slept through a 5.0 tremor at one a.m. the night of our arrival, After our bouncy 36 hour trip we were all too sound asleep to notice! And, yes, earthquakes can be felt from aboard a boat. As we proceed down our route, a never ending string of volcanoes continues to dominate the shoreline.

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I did manage to wake early enough our first morning in Chiapas to engage in bird photography via kayak, paddling down to the juncture of the waterways where all the facilities are located. My version of birdwatching is to photograph the different birds I encounter, and when I get a ‘keeper’ only then can I check another species off my list! Puerto Madero offers a wealth of waterbirds, primarily a large assortment of heron types, but also pelicans, gulls, terns, swallows, buzzards and flocks of small green parrots. I spent 3 hours paddling about in the early morning hours sneaking up on the herons and trying to catch the pelicans dive bombing for fish breakfast, but my favorite photo of the day was the buzzard – who would have guessed!

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ChiapasMex (857 of 1036)-MThis trip is primarily a delivery passage rather than a cruise, although at a somewhat leisurely pace, allowing for brief rest stops at marinas along the route. Rod calls it marina-hopping. We crossed Guatemala off our list when a passing yachtsman gave us a negative review of the marina there that was to be our next stop, so we revised our plans and bypassed that country entirely, pulling another overnighter to the next destination on our list in El Salvador.

En route I was introduced to a new night watch technique as we navigated through areas populated by longline fishermen. Even though we were sailing several miles offshore, the depths were shallow enough that we could have dropped anchor anywhere along the way. The longlines are weighted fishing lines with hooks, suspended from small buoys marked by a flag. The local fishermen attend the lines all night long, miles from shore, floating in their small unlit open boats called pangas. The challenge for us, sailing in the dark through a fleet of these, is to watch carefully for the dim blinking light, often obscured by waves, that marks a longline. If a fisherman in the attending boat feels threatened by our approach, he will shine a flashlight beam in our direction to alert us to the presence of his otherwise invisible boat. Our response is to flash a beam of light back at him with a handheld spotlight acknowledging that we see him, then change course by 10-20 degrees to detour around him, returning to our course after ten minutes or so, all the while hoping that no one has fallen asleep, lost his flashlight overboard, or had the batteries go flat!

When not concentrating on longline fishermen, night watch provides inspiration for blogging, with no visual distractions except the black sky and the electronic navigation charts and radar dimmed into night mode. The steady hum of the John Deere engine and the rhythmic swoosh of water passing under the hull create a background white noise that allows my stream of consciousness to take flight and soon phrases for future blogs start running through my brain. Typing on my iPad captures those phrases before they are forgotten, and doesn’t distract from keeping an eye out for passing ships in the night.

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Approaching the El Salvador coast provided another navigational variation as the marine club of Puerto Barillas is located 9 miles up a wide mangrove lined waterway. The entrance to the river from the sea snaked through an estuary of shallow shifting sandbars and breaking waves. Here we radioed ahead to the marina and they sent out a pilot in a panga to lead us through the tricky entrance channel and upriver without hitting bottom. AVATAR draws five feet, a relatively shallow draft, but at the shallowest bit we probably didn’t have more than another couple of feet under our bottom, even though we arrived near high tide. Our departure three days later necessarily had to be closer to low tide in order to arrive at our next port of call before dark, so Rod invested some time in serious study of tide tables, distances, and our previous recorded track to plan his strategy. The marina again provided a pilot to lead us out, so despite our concerns we made it to deep water without issue.

Long enough for one blog…more tomorrow.

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Night Sailing

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Another night watch in the wee hours of Monday morning. A half moon is up, lighting a path in the water. It rose about 10:30 pm and before then, without its glow to dampen them out, the stars were spectacularly brilliant in a black sky free of light pollution. And before that, a stunning sunset stretched from horizon to horizon, an unobstructed display of color ranging from the most delicate pinks to a blazing brassy gold.

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I’m up in the flying bridge because the night is too pleasant to spend in the confines of AVATAR’s salon. I can see the lights of two other yachts that have been within a few miles of us all this day and night, one a 45 meter motor yacht D’Natalin IV and the other a 35 meter sailboat named Manutara (thank you, AIS), both obviously headed like us to Panama via Puerto Madero. The Frigatebirds have joined us again for their free ride. Interestingly enough, they only perch on the port side boom. Even when it gets crowded and latecomers have to squabble for landing privileges, they reject the starboard boom totally. The only real difference I can guess at is that the port side is closest to land. In addition a flock of white seabirds, gulls or terns, have been flying around the boat, glowing a ghostly white when they pass through the beam of the light on our our foremast.

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Currently it’s a smooth ride with a balmy breeze, welcome after our T-pecker bash of yesterday. Sunday morning appeared to offer the best weather window of the past two weeks for tackling the 250 mile stretch across the windy Gulf of Tehuantepec. We sailed out of Huatulco’s Marina Chahué at the very crack of dawn in smooth water with only a breath of wind, and took the conservative route by staying close to shore and following the curve of the land to stay in the wind shadow. Even so, for most of the day and into the evening hours, we were in persistent 30 knot winds, gusting almost to 40, bashing head on into steep, abrupt, white capped seas with an opposing current making things worse. We’ve been spoiled by AVATAR’s level way of going after our sailboat days, but pretty soon anything susceptible had been moved to the floor for safekeeping and a pillow had been stuffed into the kitchen cupboards to stop the china from clattering.

Occasionally there are a few scattered lights along the shore, but mostly the stretch of coastline has been wild and empty. We passed an occasional wind farm (great location for them) and earlier tonight in the dark smelled the smoke and watched through our binoculars the flames of a huge conflagration raging on the beach near a lagoon named Mar Muerto, presumably a wind-fueled wildfire.

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Yesterday afternoon we did weave our way through Salina Cruz, a major oil port. There is a massive refinery on the beach and a dozen huge oil tankers were anchored just offshore waiting in turn to fill their holds with oil that has been transferred across the isthmus from the Caribbean side, refined, and now to be piped aboard for export presumably overseas. Adding to the congestion were multiple tender boats and a fleet of shrimp boats heading home from working the shrimp beds nearby. The worst of the wind occurred at Punta Ventosa just past Salina Cruz. After we passed through, conditions quieted and we enjoyed a brief period of smooth sailing, congratulating ourselves, before the wind and the unsettled waves fired up again in the dark of early evening, and demanded closer attention.

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We expect to reach our next destination, Puerto Madero, by mid Monday morning. Puerto Madero is Mexico’s southernmost port, only 12 miles north of the Guatemala border. We’ll clear in and out, hose the salt spray from AVATAR’s decks and windows, and spend a peaceful two nights with sleep uninterrupted by a rough ride and midnight watches, then continue on our way Wednesday morning, marina hopping down the Central American coast towards Panama.

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