Saturday, 8 December 2012

Across the Mosquito Gulf

Bocas del Toro to The San Blas

Choosing a weather window to do any short, but difficult, crossing is very important. There are so many things to consider, the current, the wind, the weather, the swell. The crossing from Western Panama to the east can be tricky. The trick is to wait for a hurricane to enter the Caribbean and suck up all the weather, leaving flat calm seas and no squals. It was a little late in the season for that. We did our own trade offs and decided we wanted: wind, less squalls, and we had to go before the trade winds set in against us and against the current (a nasty combo).

So happy on passage

We left Bocas about 9am, maybe a bit later. After 5 months in sheltered water, motoring out into the swell was a familiar feeling. The weather predicted 4 to 6 foot swells which for the most part it was; the period was a fair bit shorter than predicted. Back we were in the Caribbean washing machine.  The nice thing was we still had wind to keep the boat under pressure. Until about 2 am we had wind on our quarter at 10 to 15 knots, and swells on the nose at 6 ft. A bit of a pounding came from the swell, but we only encountered a few squalls which were only rain. Around 2 am, we started to enter the shipping lanes, which was fine. We were all lit up and were noticeable. Then the dry lightning came, no squalls, just bolts of lightning striking awfully close. At this point the wind switched to northerly maybe a bit east of north. We started to pound. I was in my bunk and Jennie on watch when we went over a bank of shallower water; we went from 900 meters to 60 meters. The boat was flying off the swells and smashing into the next one, the hull shuttering with each hit. Luckily that only lasted an hour or so. At about 5 am we reached a squall that was biblically wet. Visibility was maybe ¼ of a mile. After a couple hours of this massive rain, the wind hit and switched direction, we had an accidental tack. Jennie came out and we reefed the sails. Neither of us had much sleep that night. The cool thing was, with the current, we reached almost 10 knots; without a very clean bottom. After that night we decided to pull into Portabello, set the hook, sleep for 10 hrs, then leave early in the morning at dawn.

We weighed anchor at 5:45 and motored out  5 miles around the point, there we were greeted with a beam reach, sunshine, 15 knots of wind and 5 to 6 knots under sail. The dream…. We had a couple dolphins visits, which are always fun times, and a good omen. About 4 pm we pulled into Porveneir (the most idealic set airport ever), set the hook in 40 ft of water and cracked open a beer.

A few months before leaving, I got an email from a follower of the blog asking about boats to buy and any suggestions, and what life is like on a boat with a dog. I helped him out as best I could with what little knowledge I possess. Eventually John, bought a boat in Bocas, actually he bought The Salty Dog, which was owned by a young couple whose blog I followed while still imprisoned in corporate servitude. Well John and his wife Allina (and dog Beau) were stoked and they showed up and we hit it off. They wanted to go to the San Blas. At first we were a little hesitant as the passage can be notoriously rough and they were new to sailing. We were patient and just said if you can get your stuff together by the time we leave, come with. Who are Jennie and I to temper youthful risk. We told other more seasoned cruisers about this and their advice was to run, pull up hook in the middle of the night and take off. We were worried about having to bail them out if the weather got bad. They made it in flying colours, and are sitting at anchor in the San Blas now. They just followed us the whole way, it was actually reassuring to see a friendly boat on the water during that dark starless and moonless night. The moral of this story, cruising isn’t rocket science and never listen to other cruisers who spend more time at a marina than out cruising. Look at it now, John and Allina have put on more blue water miles that most boat captains sitting at marinas. It was great to see another young cruising couple be born. Despite the naysaying.

On another note as I am posting this 3 weeks later, the two young cruising boats leaving a day after us just got here to the San Blas. Jennie and I have learned that you have to take the weather window when it is time to head into the trades, and it is really easy to sail down wind to all the places you missed.

I will add more photos when I have better internet

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