The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
Once back on our boat in Ecuador we began in earnest the process of getting ready for sea by November 1st. We thought the rule was that a North American could get a visa for 3 months, renewed for another 3 months, but no further. Because Larry had been in Ecuador for the entire northern summer, his time was due to expire November 1st. But when we re-entered Ecuador from Peru, we were unexpectedly given a 90-day extension to our visas at the airport in Guayaquil. As a result, we had some elbow room if we needed it. In any case, we had completed our preparations and were ready to move on from this beautiful and hospitable country. <Larry: As we set out from La Libertad, a huge pod of perhaps a hundred dolphins welcomed us—or perhaps, welcomed Moira—back to sea, and stayed with us for maybe an hour.>
We planned on gunkholing <Larry: taking short hops and anchoring in small coves> our way up the coast of Ecuador, and then making the longer shot across the Colombian coast to Panama. As it turned out, the winds stayed pleasant for a nice passage with the winds from the south. It was a blessing to be able to daysail from spot to spot and stay in several anchorages along the Ecuadorian coast, as it gave us a chance to remember how to sail again after six months, and we enjoyed these interludes.
<Larry: We had a pleasant day-sail from La Libertad/Salinas to Ayanque, a fishing village that gave off contradictory economic signals. On the one hand, the houses were solidly constructed of brick and concrete. On the other hand, the place appeared otherwise to be relatively poor. Perhaps, as it seemed, the fishing season was closed, and if so, the wage-earners were off in other parts of the country, maybe working in construction jobs. We did get our first look at a fascinating Ecuadorian industry: on-the-beach construction of very large (70-100 foot long) wooden fishing vessels. We were to see more of this in Manta.
After a couple of days in Ayanque, we moved on to Puerto Lopez, another fishing town, and the headquarters of the Machalilla National Park, of which Isla de la Plata (see below) is a part. The town was more prosperous than Ayanque, perhaps because tour boats of varying sizes leave from here to take tourists to Isla de la Plata. I counted 70 pangas drawn up on the beach, without motors and out of commission, again perhaps because the fishing season was closed. We went ashore here to buy our entry tickets to Isla de la Plata, did some internet work at a local internet café, and had a pleasant lunch while ashore.
Our next stop, at Isla de la Plata, was most memorable. Isla de la Plata is part of Ecuador’s national park system and is known as the “poor man’s Galapagos.” We were the only non-panga in the anchorage at Isla de la Plata. After we picked up a mooring (which we had been told was mandatory, but was not) we were visited by the island’s ranger and her son in a hired panga. They ascertained that we had previously purchased park entry tickets at the park headquarters in Puerto Lopez (technically mandatory, though some have reported other experiences), and that we planned to come ashore on the morrow.
The next day we rowed ashore and hired the son as a guide (mandatory) who took us on a pleasant, if sweaty, 3-hour stroll around the west end of the island. We saw the usual suspects: blue-footed and masked boobies, frigate birds, lizards, iguanas, a number of turtles, an albatross chick (seemingly the size of an easy-chair), and goats (which are occasionally used by the Ecuadorian army for target practice and meat). There is a lot of stair-climbing on the trail, including 160 stairs up to the point where the two trails diverge to either end of the island. Our guide spoke only Spanish, but at a speed and with a vocabulary that I could keep up with. We found our guide's commentary helpful and informative, but a visitor who had no Spanish would profit less. Perhaps the most interesting statement made by our guide was that the boobies almost always lay a “clutch” of two eggs, and that as soon as one of the chicks is seen to be the stronger of the two, the other is allowed to languish and die (see the photo). Part of the guide’s job is to prevent tourists from molesting the piqueros (boobies) that have nested in the middle of the trails. Isla de la Plata was a very similar experience to Isla Isabella in Mexico, though the fauna is somewhat different, and the geology is less frankly volcanic. By the way, the name (“island of silver”) is variously attributed to stories of pirate treasure supposedly buried on the island, and to the reflection of moonlight on the guano which streaks the sides of the island.>
We particularly enjoyed visiting the sea port town of Manta, about half way up the coast of Ecuador. The yacht club there was friendly, though mostly vacant. <Larry: The Capitanía del Puerto didn’t seem quite to know what to do with a yacht which wanted to check out of the country>. We were able to see fishing boats careened on the shore for bottom painting as well as a number of huge wooden fishing boats which were being built on the beach above high tide. <Larry: I’ve never been to Hong Kong, but the harbor at Manta had the feeling, on a small scale, that I would expect from a visit to that vast port. Ships and boats were rafted up helter-skelter, or left to rot where they sank. The visiting sailor was left to his own devices to find a path through the warren of floating and no-longer-floating objects.>
In Manta, we enjoyed being able to chat over pizza on our boat with the single-hander captain of Wooden Shoe, a sail boat which had a fractured mast. The mast had been splinted with three long pieces of bamboo, in an attempt to avoid further damage during a journey down to La Libertad/Salinas, which seemed to be the only port in Ecuador that had the ability to repair or replace the mast. The captain was waiting for a crew member who was volunteering to help her motor the boat down to Salinas for repairs. We later heard on the radio net that they did make the journey safely to Salinas though unfortunately the mast was not salvageable.
After a week of gunkholing up the Ecuadorian coast, we set off on the 550-mile jump from Manta to Panama, going almost true north, and staying about 200 miles off the Colombian coast. We hoped for a downwind sail from Ecuador to Panama because of the typical southerly winds <Larry: remember, winds are named by the direction from which they come> which blow along this coast at this time of the year. The good news was that we got those winds. The bad news was that rain squalls started the second day and stayed with us until we reached Panama. Worse, while the boat got a very good washdown every day, removing the salt that accumulates from sailing, a leak in the mast boot <Larry: the seal where the mast pierces the deck> allowed water into the cabin. It was just a dribble but enough the make the cabin sole wet. <Larry: think of a leaky roof.> Fortunately the sea berth we use never got damp <Larry: and once we got to dry weather, a bit of plastic tape put matters to right>. I wore long johns most of the time. After facing three hours on duty outside in the rain, I was cold and the long johns warmed me up quickly. We survived, but the rain made what should have been a nice passage into a fairly miserable process. Once we were out of Ecuador (there are reputedly no safe anchorages along the Colombian coast line because of the drug trade) we just had to face the constant rain squalls and think about the fine conditions we hoped to see in Panama.
<Larry: A rain squall is basically a small thunderstorm. Squalls tend to occur at night, and become more enthusiastic as the night wears on. As a result, in the tropics, it is prudent to take a reef in the main at sunset. The buildup for a squall begins with cloud-to-cloud lightning, which yields audible thunder as the convection cell gets closer. There follows a gust of cooler air, followed by rain, more lightning, and increased wind that would pick up to perhaps 25-30 knots most times. The old sailor’s doggerel is “If the wind before the rain, soon you may make sail again.” Once the wind picks up, we hold on for the ride, on any course that’s comfortable. The squalls we encountered lasted about half an hour. Then it’s all over and we go back to the nighttime routine until the next squall.
We had one episode of excitement on the passage. The commercial fishermen along this coast aggressively protect their nets, and came charging after us to (as we later figured out) get us away from running over their nets. Other cruisers along this coast have had similar experiences, which they have interpreted as “attempted boarding” or “piracy.” I doubt that was the intent. In my opinion, if that had been what they’d wanted, they’d have succeeded. But it was unnerving at the time.>
After five days we reached the Perlas Islands, somewhat damp, and thankful for a passage which was much better than the previous passage from Costa Rica to Salinas, Ecuador. Going down wind is much better than upwind. Even though this particular passage was wet, at least the rain and the wind from the squalls were warm.
One system on the boat that remains indispensable is our radar. We have a color display in the cockpit and a black and white display below at the navigation station in the cabin. Works like a champ. When it was “under the weather” for a while we sent it home for repairs and it came back fixed, though to tell the truth Larry had to first extract a secret incantation from the radar repair technician at Raymarine. The radar is not only my friend during my night watches but it is our caretaker and protector from the shipping passing to and fro in the seas we transit. We can see on the radar a ship that is twelve miles away, identify its speed, direction and bearing at that time, and get some idea of whether it is likely to pass close enough to be a concern. By the time one can see a ship with the naked eye it is often within 5 to 6 miles and coming at us with a speed that begins to limit one’s options. From twelve miles or so a small boat skipper has time to maneuver if necessary, even under sail. We have on occasion contacted a converging ship (who probably had not seen us on his radar) by radio, talked to the watch officer, and jointly decided on maneuvers to avoid each other. Usually, we first see a ship on the radar, and then visually, and pass each other quietly in the night.
Through the night I can also check all our navigation data on the display in the cockpit while cuddled under shelter of the dodger. The display is well lit and in color so it is comforting to me on a night passage. If the stars or the moon are not out the radar unit provides the only light on the deck. Our navigation lights are on the top of the mast so they provide no illumination in the cockpit, and let me tell you it is dark on the ocean when the moon is not out. I typically take the midnight-to-3AM watch, and the night is often black and dark. It is an eerie feeling to go speeding <Larry: well, 5 knots> through the night and not be able to see where you are going. This is not like driving Interstate 5 with full head lights at night! <Larry: The lights on boats and ships are there to allow one to be seen, not to allow one to see. Imagine multiple cars driving across the salt flats of Utah at night in multiple directions, with no roads, without headlights, and watching for each other’s parking lights to avoid collisions.> Once on passage there is very little light at night and—particularly in the rain squalls—but for the radar, we would have no “eyes” along the way.
<Larry: Squalls show up well on radar. This is one of those good news/bad news things. The good news is that you can typically see a squall coming on the radar, and get a rough gauge of its size and intensity. The bad news is that one can’t always tell whether there’s a ship hiding in that two-to-four mile wide blotch of rain on the radar screen. There are knobs that one can twist that reduce the masking effect of the rain. One must be careful not to mask real targets by twiddling the knobs too much.>
On our passage from Ecuador to Panama we typically saw several ships per watch. Sometimes we saw the same ship multiple times because fishing vessels tend to be slow like us and go up and down the coast, back and forth as they tend their lines or nets. Fishing ships are trouble at night, both because the ship itself often does not show up on the radar until within a mile or so, but also because of the fishing lines or nets. These big fishing ships have nets that can run for miles. They tend to be within 60 miles of the coast so the further out one stays the less one is likely to tangle with them. Closer to shore there are also the smaller panga fishing boats that do not appear on radar at all and are generally not lit except for the occasional cigarette. Their nets are tied to white plastic bleach bottles or plastic gas cans, usually with a black or white flag tied to the container. The goal is to see the bottles on the ocean (impossible at night), find its mates, and to sail or motor around the ends. If you try to go through the middle not only may the prop of the boat suffer but also the boat may receive the wrath of the fisherman. On several occasions, we have heard of boats being chased by pangas and we tend to think it is because the boat destroyed the fishing line or net of the fisherman. During the day, if you are careful you can find a path around the nets, and if not the fisherman is often present and you can shout to him and he will wave you through a route that is clear. In these cases some Spanish is a real blessing.
After five days we arrived from Ecuador to the Las Perlas Islands, which cover a 20-by-30 mile teardrop-shaped stretch of ocean about thirty miles off the southern coast of Panama. <Larry: Geography check. Panama runs east-west, right? So it has a north coast and a south coast.>
These are very beautiful islands with much aqua water and gorgeous postcard-perfect beaches. Some beaches even have shells! The Archipelago is a good place to rest up from the passage, and enjoy the cruising life prior to rejoining civilization in Panama City and the Canal. <Larry: One service that is performed by the cruisers’ radio nets is to let one know how regulations are actually enforced in each area. In theory, a vessel arriving in any country must proceed straight to the formalities of immigration, customs, etc. In practice, the rigor with which such rules are enforced varies widely. It turns out that Panama is fairly relaxed about such matters, and we spent several weeks in the Perlas before trundling up to Panama City to check in. Don’t try that in the US, Cuba, or the Netherlands Antilles!>
The Perlas (formally called the Archipelago De Las Perlas) are 130 named and unnamed islets and larger islands. It was to the Island of Contadora in the Perlas that the Shah of Iran went when he lost his kingdom to the Ayatollah Khomeini. The “Survivor” TV show is filmed on the next-door Isla Chapera, and we anchored close to their building located on one end of Chapera. The Spaniard Vasco de Balboa learned about the Perlas through the wealth of riches found in the beautiful pearls that are harvested from the still-present oyster. In fact, the largest pearl found in the Perlas was the 31 carat “Peregrine” pearl which has been owned by the half the royal houses of Europe and now belongs to our own Elizabeth Taylor. Pirates have hidden here for generations, most famously Henry Morgan, who plundered the Spanish treasure fleet and Panama City. Then there were the drug lords of Colombia, who had been known to rendezvous in the Perlas, and who didn’t make one feel welcome. With the serious drug interdiction programs now in place that threat seems to have disappeared. Today, these islands are just a lovely place for cruisers to hang out, for rich Panamanians to enjoy their wealth, and for the few Panamanians who live on the islands to earn their meager livings.
At the end of our five-day passage, we anchored at the Río Cacique in the southeast corner of Isla del Rey. <Larry: We reached the vicinity of Isla del Rey about midnight, and hove to for a few hours to await daylight, rather than try to feel our way into an unfamiliar anchorage in the dark.> After a day or two to rest up and dry out, we took the dinghy into the village of Esmeraldas. A crowd of children and idlers gathered on the beach as we scouted exactly where we wanted to try the landing, and they welcomed and helped us in once we got into shallow water. The kids stood around the dinghy the whole time we were on the island and were enthralled with the very basic equipment we had in the dink. One of the adults walked with us to the village and helped us to buy scallops (these turned out to be tough) and some delicious pargo (snapper). The guy who helped us land the dink did request a propina (tip) as we set off. <Larry: The village was dirt-poor. Though they had electricity and rough cement sidewalks, it was clear that they were living close to the bone. The sidewalks weren’t for walking on: many of the families had fincas (small farming plots) on the island where they raised rice, and the sidewalks were covered with rice drying in the sun. A man who owned an outboard engine for his cayuco (canoe) was a rich man indeed.> The next day at our request a cayuco brought us 5 lobsters, which were delicious. Later, we were able to buy some mangos as well which were good. Generally, the opportunities to purchase more than the most basic supplies—fish, vegetables, beer—are few. The boat needs to be well-supplied and have its own stores on board. When you run out of groceries you must head into Panama City.
<Larry: Another attraction of the Río Cacique anchorage is the river itself. If one is prepared to brave the rocky mouth of the river at a half-tide on a rising tide, the incoming current sweeps one upriver past mangroves, iguanas, herons, and such. Complete silence, no motor required. We munched our sandwiches as we drifted up the river in the drizzle. Very spiritual.
After four days at Río Cacique, we moved up the coast a bit and spent several days at an anchorage on the south side of Isla Cañas. There is an anchorage in the narrow north-south channel between Isla Cañas and the “mainland” of Isla del Rey. When we arrived, there was a pretty stiff breeze blowing from the north, and the water was too shallow in the south entrance (at the time we got there) to enter from the south, so we decided to try the relatively sheltered anchorage on the south side of the island, with the option to move into the channel in a few hours when the tide rose, if we didn’t like the anchorage where we were. We liked it so much we wound up spending several days there.
Our next anchorage, Isla Espiritu Santo, has the same configuration as Isla Cañas: the primary anchorage is in a narrow channel between the smaller island of Isla Espiritu Santo and the larger island of Isla del Rey. The currents through the channel are, well, impressive, powered by the relatively large (up to 20 feet) change in tides. But the tide creates opportunities. One of the boats here had deliberately been driven up on the beach at high tide, and as the water level fell, she leaned over on one side, at an angle of perhaps 45 degrees. Her crew scrubbed her bottom and applied fresh paint to the high side below the waterline. The next day, they did it again, leaned her over the other way, and painted the other side of the bottom. This process of “careening” is the way ships have been cleaned since time immemorial, before the creation of TravelLifts and cranes and such. The first time we got to see the process on a commercial scale was in Manta, and here we were seeing it again on a yachtie scale. In the photo, note the first mate working on the captain’s morale.
We got our first taste of navigation to tighter tolerances on the way into the anchorage at Isla Ampon, which is protected by a pair of rocky reefs that are covered at most stages of the tide. With a combination of GPS and old-fashioned hand-bearing compass, we found our way safely into and out of the anchorage. We spent a couple of nights there, alone, and enjoyed a row in the dink around little Isla Ampon, marveling at the herons and smaller predatory birds.>
Our next stop was Isla Bayoneta, which has a lovely small anchorage that was peaceful, with many mangroves. <Larry: I took Susan for a row in the dink, looking for shells. Bayoneta is supposed to have magnificent cowry and scallop shells, but it appears that the locals have pretty well picked over the beaches.> It seemed to be a pleasant place until cocktail hour at dusk. Then jejenes (“no-see-um’s) started biting me and did not stop until the morning we left. By the time we left the next day, my arms and leg were covered with red spots festering and itching like mad. Fortunately, I had Calamine lotion on the boat and finally succumbed to taking Predisone to stop the awful itching. These little pests are not on all the islands, and in fact we were only bothered on Bayoneta.
We left Bayoneta in a hurry the next morning to get away from the no-see-um’s, and that started our next adventure. Though Larry had carefully plotted our departure around the shallow water off the island, he was feeling too frisky as we made our escape and we had the jarring experience of grounding on rocks in 5 to 7 feet of water. What a terrible sound…grinding and pounding. Larry’s planning was correct, but he “cut the corner” on the way out of the anchorage. So we came to a very rapid and noisy stop. Larry could immediately feel that the rudder and propellor were not involved and were ok. And the bilge pump was not running, so there were no holes in the hull. Our Valiant is one tough baby. The keel is about 8000 pounds of lead so we were not really threatened. It did take me about three minutes to look around, see that we could almost walk to shore, and realize that the bilge pump was not running, before I really understood that we were not in grave danger. Our captain did have the forethought to leave the anchorage on a “rising tide” so all we had to do was stay away from more rocks close to the coast and wait for the rising tide and off we would go. Well. Larry put us in a good position to take advantage of the rapidly rising tide and within 30 minutes we were on our way. But what a terrible feeling and a grand way to spoil the morning.
<Larry: Mea Culpa. I was lucky. The grounding was due to a last-minute glance at the chartlets, which showed that the underwater hazards were mostly on the starboard (right) side of the channel, while the water was deeper close to the island on the port (left) side. Yeah, but not that close. When we went up on the rock ledge, the configuration of the rocks was such that, while they could pound away on the bottom foot or so of the keel, none of the rocks projected high enough to damage the propeller, which would have made our situation much more uncomfortable. Valiant’s have an external lead keel, which meant that, barring damage to the prop or rudder, the worst that would likely happen would be a few dings and bumps in the soft lead, which can be hammered out. Having a rising tide meant that, as Susan says, all we had to do is wait for the water to get deeper and we’d float off automatically. Well, not exactly: there was a strong current flowing, which was trying to force us further up on the ledge. Fortunately, with rudder and prop intact, it wasn’t that hard to get Moira to pivot around and face into the current, so that as the water rose we could thump and grind and bump our way back against the current into the correct channel. Definitely unfun. Oh, and when you go aground on rock, it’s not a good strategy to hit the throttle and try to power your way over the top of what you’ve hit. Dumb. But we made it off eventually, and without an insurance claim.
After the grounding we went up the coast to Isla Chapera (“Survivors”), where we immediately snorkeled to check the damage, which appeared to be cosmetic. We stayed there a couple of nights, and once again had the anchorage to ourselves. One night the inducement of a bit of uncooked scallop persuaded a triggerfish to join us for dinner. Then we moved on to Contadora. Contadora has had a role as a conference center for Central American politicos when they want to get together to discuss regional issues. As a result, there’s a veneer of very upscale housing, hotels, and restaurants at the water’s edge. Once one is out of sight of the ocean in the interior of the small island, it’s back to cinder block construction.>
The water at Contadora was clear to the sand with a lovely greenish aqua color, filled with small tropical fish. All these islands have a rapid current running through the channels around them <Larry: a result of the tides which can reach heights of 20 feet>, so while swimming was momentarily refreshing, it wasn’t really relaxing because the current was so tough: if I let go of the boat or a line from the equipment I would end up 600 feet away from the boat so fast that I couldn’t get back even with hard swimming. <Larry: Our entertainment the first morning at Contadora was provided by a Panamanian sailboat that was getting its anchor down just as we pulled in. By the time we had gotten done with our anchoring routine, his dinghy was in the water and he was in the dinghy, disappearing around the corner of the island. That afternoon the winds got up to 25 knots or so, the current powered up, and his boat dragged right past us, plowing a path maybe 500 feet long through the anchorage. His anchor finally hooked on some rocks at one end of the anchorage, perhaps just a little too close to us for social grace, but not a real danger. We never saw the guy again. We wonder what he said to himself when he came back and found his boat displaced. The next day’s entertainment was provided by a pod of humpback whales working their way down the western border of the Perlas Archipelago.>
<Larry: Our plan has been to head back to the States for Christmas. We hoped to sail the 35 miles from Contadora to Panama City and rent a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club, which lies at the very entrance to the Canal. BYC is an unusual institution: it is a real yacht club, not a marina, though it has no clubhouse (burned down). It is run for its members rather than transient yachties (the nerve!). BYC doesn’t take reservations, so we made sure we had a “Plan B” anchorage available. It was well that we did: we had a very nice sail up to Panama City, but BYC was full, takes no reservations, and has a whimsical waiting-list policy. So we wound up at La Playita anchorage, about three miles away at the end of the causeway/breakwater that protects the Canal entrance. The effect was rather like Moses being forbidden to enter the Promised Land. The anchorage at La Playita isn’t secure enough, either from theft or weather, to consider leaving Moira there for an extended period. As a result we’re going to rent a slip at one of the few real marinas here, at an astounding price.>
To all those who wanted to participate in our Panama Canal crossing…. Now is the time to speak up or forever keep your peace and read this narrative. We plan a crossing of the Canal in mid or late February so give us an email if any interest exists. I remember some passionate line handlers at my retirement party but that was a long time ago! <Larry: Caveat emptor: though we will get a transit date from the Panama Canal Authority, it can be changed at the last instant. So you may wind up spending more time here than you bargained on. Those who apply need to be tolerably fit. If you do it right, line-handling involves no great feats of strength. But if you get it wrong, the safety of up to four boats may depend on your ability to wrestle a line onto a cleat and get it secured.>
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