Monday, May 24, 2010

Roatan to Bocas del Toro, Panama

We Made It!
Braving a non functioning auto helm, vicious headwinds, the electrical navigation system dying, and awe inducing lightning storms Heidi, Jim, and I sailed safely from Roatan, Honduras to Bocas del Toro, Panama. We stopped for two nights at the offshore Columbian island getaway San Andres to rest up and take a look at the auto helm and chart plotter. We left on Tuesday May18th, and arrived at the jungle clad islands of Bocas del Toro this morning, Monday May 24th.
To understand our mindset as we left Roatan you need some background. First, Heidi already has a plane ticket out of Bocas del Toro on the 26th so we have a time table. Also we tried unsuccessfully to leave twice already, being beaten back to the island both times with engine failures. (really a gremlin in the fuel lines). We checked the weather, and the idea of beating into the wind for half the trip wasn’t inviting, but we had to get moving.
The third time is a charm. Hearing the engines purr contently for more than an hour was wonderful. And we all had smiles even if waves were washing over the deck and up into some windows that were not very well sealed. Then after 5 hours the auto helm suddenly shoots off a warning beep, reads failure on the screen, and then shortly turns off altogether, not to come back on again. Heidi and I were used to this from our adventure on the Odyssey, and we knew that it meant long hours hand steering at the helm. We all got very talented steering with our feet. I took this all in stride but the next failure was even tougher.
An hour after the auto helm died both of our electronic chart plotters and radar malfunctioned and went dead. We use these instruments to tell us our gps location imposed on a chart of the area, water depth (reefs, rocks, etc), speed, direction to destinations, radar, etc… You may be asking yourself, ‘well how did sailors do all of that before electronic navigation and radar?’, and luckily for Heidi, and I our time working on tall ships came in very useful since we still practice a lot of the old, less technical techniques for finding out these things.
Even luckier was the fact that I had a small handheld gps that ran off batteries. So, finding speed and position was easier. I just plotted that position onto one of our charts and had a good idea where we were going. We steered by compass which can be pretty difficult heading into big wind and waves at night. This was getting pretty tiring by 3 and 4 in the morning but then our luck began to change. For some reason one of the chart plotters popped back to life and wallah, we were back in business.
After rounding the horn where Honduras meets Nicaragua we squeezed out thru a passage in the offshore reefs called the Edinburgh Passage. We had received some local knowledge and waypoints to help guide us thru the treacherous Nicaragua Banks. Once we turned south to head towards the Columbian owned island of San Andres the ride became much smoother. We couldn’t sail on sail power alone but putting the mainsail up really dampened the rolling effect of the waves.

Checking in and getting cleared in San Andres was a breeze. We had to sail past miles of fringing reefs which are cluttered with wrecks. Some old, some new. There was a huge 200ft freighter up on the reefs that hit only 8 months ago. The island reminded me of Honolulu with big hotels and lots of shopping just behind a nice beach with beautiful water.
We stayed at NeNe’s marina where we could fuel up which was a good thing because we ran out of fuel! We were pushing pretty hard against the wind but were under the impression that the fuel consumption was 1.3gallons per hour. It turns out that at our rpm’s it was closer to 3gallons per hour! Luckily we had 30 extra gallons in jugs on deck. We glided into the marina with a healthy 5 gallons left over.
Heidi and I immediately jumped into the water to cool off as Jim got the paper work going. Then we shared a cold beer. Aguila is the local favorite. Nothing like a cold drink when you safely reach harbor. We spent that afternoon and the entire next day snorkeling, checking out the beaches, and trying some Columbian cuisine.

It was a nice break but we were up and ready to go at 4am on Monday the 23rd. We quietly shoved off from the dock and motored out of the lagoon on our way to Panama. We had a couple of guest on our way out. First we heard the local policia chattering away in Spanish on the radio. I soon realized that not only were they talking to us, but they were in high speed pursuit on a motorboat behind us! They thought we were making a pre-dawn getaway but in fact we had all our papers in order, having checked out the night before. So we soon left them in our wake, only to find our other surprise guest, bow riding dolphins! That is always a good omen. Not to mention the auto helm was back up and running.
And what a good omen it was. The wind was light but enough to keep the sails full. We were speeding along right on course with intermittent squalls. The winds headed us a bit during the night but we kept speed up until Heidi noticed some powerful looking lightning storms ahead. Imagine how susceptible a golfer is standing on a golf course, then think about a sailboat on a flat sea with a huge metal mast. Now not to worry, they are built to withstand a direct hit, but it is almost a certainty that while you will remain safe your electronics will not. So we throttled back to let the storms run by in front of us heading west towards land.
This lasted until I took over watch around 1am. A huge lightning storm was building off of our port bow. It looked like we would get swamped by it if we stayed or if we ran ahead. So I powered us up and tried to outrun it. 2 o clock it was still there, hauntingly close. 3 o clock a little bit closer, a little bit bigger. 4 o clock it was all around us. I had all the electronics turned off except our running lights so other boats could see us. Then, inexplicably it was past. I guess it just got tired of bullying us and dissipated.
After that we cruised thru another sunrise, had a wonderful breakfast burrito, and pulled into Bocas del Toro Yatch Club around 2pm. The jungle covered islands and palm fringed beaches of this archipelago are very picturesque. I cant wait to explore them and find some good surf spots. We havnt been able to clear in yet, which means we havnt been allowed to leave the boat but we did have 3 congratulatory beers delivered too us. A solid end to a great trip. I have such a sense of accomplishment after completing an adventure like this. I wonder what will be next…

Monday, May 17, 2010

Crazy boat times

Well we tried to head out from Roatan, Honduras to Panama Saturday afternoon. The boat did fine at first, headed nicely into the waves. Took some big ones over the bow but we stayed dry once we found all the different windows to latch down. Then inexplicablly the engines started cutting out again. So I was down in the engine room again and again bleeding out the lines. Finally we had to turn around. Only problem was we were gone long enough to make it night by the time we would return. There are no lighted channels on roatan into the anchorages, the wind was blowing right onshore (not good if you lose your engine), and once you are in the anchorage there are still treacherous shallow shoals (invisible unless you have a high sun).
I was worried most about getting close to shore and then having the engine cut off. The waves and wind would dash up on the reef in no time. So I had Jim on the bow (ready with the anchor in case of dire emergency), heidi at the helm (following our last path out on our chart plotter), and me down in the engine room with wrenches ready to get the engines back online if needed.
We had our jib up, going about 6knts with the engine on idle ahead. Once we got within a mile Jim and I struck the jib and we were still cruising over 4knts. To us it looked as if there was no channel, no anchorage, just lights from shore that we were headed towards. But we trusted our plotter so we headed closer to the reefs and shore.
Just as I expected the engine cut off at the worst time. But luckily we were all ready for it and it started after a few seconds of coaxing fuel thru the lines. When I looked up Heidi already had us in the chanel. Now to navigate the shoals and find an anchorage.
We turned the depth finder on as we were easing over a 6.8ft shoal (the boat draws 6ft). So a sharp turn to starboard and then we were in the safer 20ft depth range. Heidi snaked the boat thru the field of other anchored boats and we dropped anchor between a couple. The anchor didnt catch at first but soon we were holding fast. (this turned out to be very lucky as I dove on the anchor the next morning and found it on its side hooked onto a lone coral head/rock). We all slept very well.

Yesterday was spent trying everything we could with the fuel lines/pumps/filters to get the engines running. The strbd engine wouldnt stay on longer than 10minutes and the port not more than an hour. It was driving me crazy. No mechanics to be found on a sunday so we were stuck. Luckily there was another boater who invited us ashore for a beach volleyball game followed by beer in the pool. White face capuchins (little monkeys) and huge inguanas circled the volleyball court with a beautiful turqois bay off to one side.
After the break we went back to possible scenarios with the engines. We finally decided to call it a day and get a mechanic tomorrow. But I had one last idea. So I crawled way back behind the strbd engine and disconnect the fuel hose running from the filter, under the engine, to the fuel pump. I was going to clean the fitting and blow out the hose. When I took it outside under the light I noticed a big tear in the hose which must have been sucking air in, clogging up the fuel intake system. Wallah! We had discovered the culprit. I cut off that section of the hose and reattached the fittings, luckily it was long enough still, and then Jim started up the engines. The worked great. So now we are back on track. We need to top off the fuel and get some more water (man do you go thru alot down here), hopefully the wind will die down alittle this afternoon and we will head off to Panama....again.

So wish us luck and hopefully the next email will be from Bocas del Toro, Panama. (maybe a quick one from San Andres, a little island owned by Columbia).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Roatan, Honduras

I am beginning to see a pattern with sailboat cruising, you about as likely to end up at your planned destinatin as you are some alternate place you may or may not have considered as a backup.
This time we were headed for Cayo Vivarillo from Isla Mujeres. We headed east about 30 miles to get out of the effects of the fast moving north Yucatan channel current. Then we turned south by southeast to try and make it to Vivorillo, a deserted dry reef off the horn of Honduras on one tack. We were pinching a bit (headed a little too into the wind) so we had to motor. Unfortunately the engines kept shutting off. So I had to go time and time again into the engine compartment to change filters and bleed the fuel lines before getting the engine started up again. Guess having 18 month old diesel will do that to an engine. Eventually we started seeing better fuel but it took awhile. In the meantime another problem showed itself. Our alternators and generator weren't charging the batteries.
Having charged batteries on a boat is important because they power the starter for the engine and the generator, the navigation lights so other boats can see us at night, and our navigation equipment so we can see other boats (and land) at night. Luckily we had a 30yr old battery charger we could plug into an outlet, however if this went out we would be stuck in a bad position. So the decision to turn towards Roatan, almost due south, and go under sail power was agreed on.
We flew! Hitting 7+ knots just under sail power was more than I imagined for this big old boat. We had the wind right over our port beam and we knew another couple of nights and we would be in Roatan. Some jumping Mahi Mahi and bowriding dolphins guided us toward the island on the last morning.
It was a bit dicey getting into the anchorage but we found a good one behind an exposed reef on the south shore near the town of French Harbor. We are next to an all inclusive dive resort called Fantasy Island. So we have been making the best of our stay by going there, renting tanks, and taking the dinghy out on incredible wall dives just on the other side of the exposed reef, hanging out with sea turtles, queen angelfish, spotted drums, tons of parrot fish, and my favorite indigo hamlets.
We also took a tour around the island checking out the towns of French Harbor and Coxen Hole and the touristy West End. The views are incredible from the hills on the island. There is fringing reef everywhere.
Its amazing to think that 60,000 people live on an island that is 30 miles by 2 miles wide. And most of it is uninhabitable mangroves and steep hillsides. The locals are nice and we usually get one a day coming by the boat selling freshly caught seafood.
We are currently waiting for an electrician to check out the battery charging issue and then it looks like a bumpy ride into the wind due east to Cayo Vivarillo. Here's hopin'