Blog Post 45 - The Cruise from El Salvador to Costa Rica - A Series of Unfortunate Events

Thu 22 Sep 2016 20:43
Blog Post 45 – The Cruise from El Salvador to Costa Rica – A Series of Unfortunate Events
10.33.48N 85.41.85W
07/12/16 – 08/25/16

We returned to the boat in Costa Del Sol, El Salvador and got Daniel ready to return to Long Beach. He left the next day. We were all sad to see him go. Jirig, Nico and I settled in for a long wait while the rainy season endured on. We caught up on school, did boat projects and took trips into San Salvador to provision, go to the movies and go out to eat in nice restaurants. Almost every late afternoon and early evening there were rainstorms replete with thunder and lightening. It was stifling hot during the day. Nothing much moved, human or beast, in the marina between the hours of 11-3, the hottest part of the day. Thankfully one of the projects we were working on was installing another air conditioner in our bedroom. We now had full AC throughout the boat. What a luxury. We did any outdoor projects in the early morning before it got too hot. We did everything we could to stay busy and entertained. It didn't help though. We were miserable. We had been in this marina for 2 ½ months and we were over it. We had seen all there was to see and we were ready to get out of there. We started to discuss going south. The worst of the rainy season was ahead of us, September and October were supposed to be torrential downpours, where it rained for days at a time. No more afternoon thunderstorms. If we were going to go we had better do so soon. We discussed the reasons why we decided to stay in El Salvador back in May. Those reasons seemed a long way away. We were used to the storms now, the intense thunder and lightening no longer terrified us. We consulted professional weather routers and forecasters and they all said it could be done, it would be rough but possible, given the right weather window. We started to look for one. We started to prepare the boat to sail again. Everything must be carefully stowed away and all surfaces must be clear. Anything that could become dislodged while underway needed to be secured. We found the weather window we were looking for. All we needed was a 36 hour window. Enough to get us to the first safe anchorage in Costa Rica, Bahia Santa Elena. We chose Friday 08/19 to leave. However there was more than the weather window going south that we needed to look at. We still needed to get out of the estuary and over that damn sandbar at the entrance. The harbor master and pilot advised that we could not leave on Friday as the swells at the entrance to the estuary and over the sandbar were too large. It is a lot harder to exit the estuary than to enter it. Going in you are riding the waves in. Going out you are going against the waves. They said we would need to wait until Monday until we could go. The weather window would be ok, but not great. The winds along the Nicaraguan coast would be a little more intense. We had always planned to skip Nicaragua. The only marina there, Pueste Del Sol was, you guessed it, in an estuary and you had to cross over another sandbar at the entrance and be led in by a pilot. We were done with estuaries and mangrove swamps. We were not going over one more bar, if we could avoid it. Nicaragua is an expensive country to check into by boat, almost $400 for us and we just did not think it was worth it. We would head straight for Costa Rica. We made one last provisioning run to San Salvador and prepared to leave.

On Monday 8/22 we got up at 4:00AM and prepared to leave at first light. The pilot arrived and advised that the swells were very small and that crossing the bar should be relatively easy. We pulled away from the dock and felt relief at finally being underway again. Never again would we get stuck unprepared in the rainy, or hurricane season. For next years hurricane season (we will be in the Caribbean where hurricanes rule) we will have planned exactly where we wanted to be.

It was a glorious morning. We crossed over the bar right as the sun was rising. The pilot took a picture of us going over the bar and it has become my favorite picture of the boat. We sighed a sigh of relief at being underway again and settled in for the 240 mile trip to Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica. There is lots of boat traffic along the El Salvadorean and Nicarauguan coasts. We saw shrimp boats, freighters, cruise ships and lots of pangas but no other cruising sailboat. We were alone out here.. We chose to stay 25 miles off shore to avoid most of the traffic that hugs the coast. The winds were light at 5-15 knots throughout the day. We were making good time cruising at 6 ½ knots. The seas/swells were light at 1-2 ft out of the SW. We saw tons of logs, debris and even whole trees in the water. The torrential rains wash this debris out to sea and it has nowhere to go, except to create a hazard for passing boats. We had to keep a vigilant watch to avoid hitting them. At about 10pm that night the conditions started to worsen. The winds picked up to about 20kts. The swells were getting bigger and now we're coming at us at 4-6 ft from the SW. The SW swells hit the boat broadside at the beam or center of the boat. The forward and back motion of the boat is normal and much easier on the boat and its occupants. When the swell is coming from the side it rocks the boat side to side. It is uncomfortable and forces you to hold on. It also dislodges things from cupboards, counter tops and shelves. A normal side to side motion is about 10 degrees side to side, we were rocking 15-20 degrees side to side. We had already passed the one place in Nicaragua where we could have sought shelter so we had no choice but to press on. Jirig and I both knew we would not be getting any sleep this night. Remember when I mentioned preparing the boat to sail? Well, I did a shitty job of it. We had been in a marina tied to a dock for 3 months with nothing to rock the boat but the wake from a passing boat. I thought I had done a good job-NOT. One of the cardinal rules of preparing the boat to cruise is to empty the trash and stow the trash can. Not only do you not want to take unnecessary trash with you, you also want to make sure the trash is empty so in case it spills, nothing comes out. I forgot to empty the kitchen trash and stow the trash can by wedging it between the bars tools in the salon. As conditions worsened around midnight the shit show in the cabin started. Nico loves cinnamon toast. Before we left I mixed together a cup of sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. I meant to put it in a container but I forgot to and left it on top of the microwave. So here is how things went down. First the trash can tipped over and spilled all its contents on the floor. What was in there? The trash from the mornings breakfast. We are talking coffee grounds, egg shells, tea, orange peels and other organic waste. The trashcan dispelled its contents all over the floor. 10 minutes later the cup of cinnamon sugar joined the trash. After one particularly huge hit from a wave on our side the ice maker door opened and dispelled approximately 300 ice cubes on to the floor. Remember I just had our beautiful teak floors redone. Now the floor was swilling trash , coffee, eggs, cinnamon sugar and melting ice all over the floor in the salon. It was spilling down the stairways towards the bow of the boat and also to our bedroom in the aft cabin. It was so rough and rocky that there was no way I could get into the cabin to clean it. I had to sit and watch while all this crap tumbled, rolled and swilled across my beautiful floors. Things that had never moved before, the microwave, the toaster and the fans started sliding, threatening to come off the counter. We could hear all kinds of stuff crashing around in the V-berth at the bow of the boat. We could not go down into the salon to make a cup of coffee, eat or drink. Not until the conditions got better. They did not. They only got worse. By 1:00 the next afternoon we really got hit hard. We were in the worse place we could possible be along the Nicaraguan coast for wind and waves. Lake Nicaragua is a huge body of water, the largest in Central America and there is a narrow isthmus separating it from the sea, the size of the lake and the narrow strip of land, it is the narrowest point in Nicaragua, and it creates its own weather conditions. We had 30-35 knot winds coming from the east off of the land, creating its own wind chop at 3-4 feet.. We had 4-6 foot swells coming with the current from the SE hitting us on the other side. What made it most intense and unusual was the the wind waves coming from the land were 4 seconds apart. Usually you will see swells and wind chop at 10-15 seconds but to get hit with a wave every 4 seconds is insane and really uncomfortable. The ocean was like a washing machine on overdrive. Nico had slept through the rough night, the kid can sleep through anything but now things were so bad even he was up and in the pilot house, the safest place to be in conditions like this. The sea was so rough we could not use the autopilot. Jirig had to hand steer through this mess while struggling to just stand up. Nico and I were sitting on the floor of the pilot house holding on for dear life. The closer you are to the floor the safer you are. If you are standing you can get thrown and flung against something that could cause serious injury.
How was our boat faring through all this? Our boat is a Flippin beast! Our bow is huge and very heavy, we displace 55 tons of water. It handled the seas superbly. Waves were crashing over the bow and the decks were awash with seawater. In conditions like this no one goes outside unless it is absolutely necessary. We are a motor sailer. That means we can motor or sail or both. In conditions like this you never have your sails up, the wind would just drag you all over the sea and you would have no control, your engines would not be powerful enough to counter the winds force. The only thing you want up is a small sail to stabilize the boat. We had our smallest sail, the mizzen up. The conditions were getting so bad Jirig wanted to bring it down. He braved the conditions on the deck to do so. As he struggled to stand up on the violently rocking and slippery back deck he started to furl the sail in. As he did the sail did not furl properly and a portion of it folded over on itself and left a small piece of the sail exposed. Now the wind was so violent that one small piece of sail started getting larger. It flapped and banged and made the mast rattle something fierce. As if things could not get any worse, the pump on our water tank broke and we could not pump any water. We had 700 gallons of fresh water in our tanks that we could not access. An odd thing occurred to me in all of this mess….I never realized how often I wash my hands! I kept forgetting the faucet did not work and I would go to it to wash my hands to no avail. We allways have drinking water stored on the boat so there was plenty of drinking water to be had but, no sings, showers or toilets. Great, we were just hating life at this point.

There is an infamous cruiser named Bob Bitchen ( yes, that really is his name) that has written numerous books on cruising and is the publisher of Lattitudes and Attitudes, a very popular cruising magazine. In his books and magazine articles he always talks about how important your attitude is to successful or unsuccessful cruising. Attitude is everything in a situation like this. If people panic or are negative it only makes things so much worse for the captain and the crew. No whiners or wimps allowed. I was so proud of Nico. He has such a good attitude. He is calm, mellow and never complains. He is stoic, he knows the conditions we are in and knows how to keep himself safe. In times like this you have to do everything you can to support each other and especially the captain. Jirig and I had both been up for over 32 hours. We were exhausted. Your legs and arms get so tired from trying to balance and hold on that you feel like they are just going to collapse on you. We remained positive and worked together like a well oiled machine. Everybody had their role to play, there is only the 3 of us to run this boat. If one person does not carry their weight it brings down the others. You are only as strong as your weakest link.

The mizzen sail was getting worse. The more the sail unfurled the more pressure it put on the mast. If that mast came down we would be in big trouble. We are a ketch rigged sailboat which means we have 2 masts so we could still sail but when a mast comes down you have no idea where or how it will and it could do some serious damage to both us and the boat. We had to do something. We put on our life vests for safety and put our ditch bags by the door. Jirig decided to head closer to the shore to try and reduce the wind fetch (waves) that were slamming into the side of the boat. The closer to shore you get the area for the wind fetch to grow is reduced. We headed towards the coast. Hugging the shore brings its own dangers. There is shallow water, rocks, shoals and a lot more boat traffic. Most boats down here do not have lights so it is very difficult to see them. We would take our chances hugging the coast. It was still bad, but not nearly as rough as it had been 30 miles off shore. This would make our route longer, but who cared ? Once we got to the protection of the coast, Jirig was able to furl what was left of our mizzen sail in. It would need to be repaired, but it was salvageable.

We limped into Bahia Santa Elena, battered but not defeated. We needed to clean up the mess, have a good meal and get some sleep. Nico went downstairs to our room to watch a movie while I made some food. Jirig did a damage assessment of the boat. There appeared to be no serious damage. Nico yells that there is no power in our rooms electrical outlets. Jirig goes down to investigate. He can't figure it out. He traces the electrical wires to the source. The wires leading to the outlets are completely corroded and destroyed. He eventually finds the problem. Muriatic acid is a common solvent and cleaner for boats. It is toxic and more corrosive than bleach. We had a gallon of it in one of the lockers on the deck above our stateroom. It had its own box to secure it in place but with 18 hours of violent rocking and pitching side to side it had dislodged and tipped over. Thank God it did not completely spill, it only trickled out, it could have been a disaster. Could things get any fucking worse? No water, no electrical power?......Jirig cleaned up the acid, repaired the wires and restored the power to our room. Did I mention how amazing my husband is? He can do anything and everything. I am thankful that both my sons take after him in that regard and not me. I married well. We ate our food and literally fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. We were glad to put the last 48 hours behind us.

When we woke up the next morning after 12 solid hours of uninterrupted sleep we found ourselves in the most glorious anchorage. The water was crystal clear and an aqua marine blue. There were whales swimming at the entrance to the bay. The shore was thick with rain forest and you could see and hear the numerous tropical birds and monkeys squawking away. As there was not much ashore except dense jungle we had breakfast and prepared the boat to sail again. This time I did a much better job of stowing everything away. I would never forget the mess in the cabin that was completely avoidable. I learn from my mistakes.

Our next stop was Playe de Coco, a mere 42 miles away. Playa de Coco is a very popular gringo destination in Costa Rica. It is full or surfers, vacationers and expats that have settled there. As it is a surfing beach, it has swells and we had to land the dingy in the surf. We donned our swim suits and our waterproof bags and prepared to go ashore. When you enter a new country by boat you need to check in with the Port Captain, Customs and Immigration. If you do not you can get arrested and have your boat confiscated. When you fly in as a tourist you usually have a return ticket and are in the country for a defined period of time. Not so on a boat. Costa Rica makes cruisers jump through hoops to check in. The first trip is to the Port Captain. You check in and let him know you are there. He then sends you to Immigration. In this case immigration was 2 kilometers down the road. That means a nice long walk in the hot sun. After spending an hour waiting for clerks to fill out manual form and ask numerous questions you then need to go to Customs. In this case the customs office was at the airport in Liberia, a good 30 minutes away by taxi. After paying $60 for a round trip cab fare we hustle into the airport and try to get cleared through customs. Not many people arrive in Costa Rica by boat so the process is agonizingly slow. To add to the cluster fuck four large planes filled with tourists arrived while we were there making us their last priority. Nico and I wandered through the brand new airport and found a little store that had awesome American snacks like Goldfish, Skittles and Starburst. We loaded up on junk and found a place to hang out while Jirig waited for the customs officers. Finally the process was finished and we returned to town. We still had to return to the Port Captains office but it was closed so we would have to come ashore again tomorrow. We still had one tall order of business to take care of. Remember that the pump on our water tanks is broken beyond repair and we had to find another one. This is where cruising can get a little frustrating. You are in a new town, you don't have a map except for your phone, you need to find a relatively obscure boat part in a place that only had tourist pangas, not big, old, sailboats like ours. We started to talk to the locals to see if they could guide us. Meanwhile we needed water and ice. For those of you that now me I am an ice freak. I need ice water constantly and cannot drink a cocktail with out it. Water and ice are very heavy. We are in a dinghy, which is a good mile down the beach from the store. We need to get 5 gallons of water and 5 kilos of ice and get it back to the dinghy. It is broiling hot and Nico and I need to schlep it down to street while looking for Jirig who has gone off with a local looking for a waterpump. We are so busy checking into the country and looking for supplies and parts that we do not have a chance to really enjoy the town. By this time we are supremely frustrated and tired and hungry. Then like a beacon in the night I spot a Hard Rock Café. WTF? That was the last thing I expected to see in this little beach town. Needless to say we headed there. We proceeded to have one of the best burgers (and a few very expensive cocktails) until we were happy and satisfied campers. It only set us back $120 bucks! Welcome to Costa Rica! Pura Vida and all that shit……

We got a taxi back to the beach and schlepped our water and ice back to the dinghy. Jirig had gotten a lead on a possible shack that sold marine supplies to the tourist pangas so we would head there in the morning, after we went back to the Port Captains office to show him we had cleared into the country properly.

The next morning went looking for the marine supply shack. What a shack it was. It was a small hut, with a counter with some shelves behind it that were sparsley stocked with supplies. After about 30 minutes of back and forth in broken Spanish we determined they did not have a water pump that would work for us. A local guy, standing next to us watching us go back and forth, who spoke English told us about a marine boat yard a mile down the road. We headed there. This was not a boatyard…it was a graveyard for decrepit boats. I've seen my share of boat yards and was not interested so Nico and I headed for the market to get some supplies while Jirig tried to find what we needed. The owner of the boat yard points to an old shipping g container and says go look in there you might find what you need. The container is filled with random boxes filled with rusting parts. There is no light, no window and it is sweltering hot. Jirig digs through the container and after about 30 minutes find a water pump. It is seized. He does not want to buy it unless he knows he can get it to work so he proceeds to take the thing apart at the guys workbench. Meanwhile Nico and I have finished shopping and are sitting in the hot sun with all of our groceries waiting for Jirig. Jirig gets the damn thing to work, we pay the guy and head for the dinghy schlepping all our groceries. The sky starts to darken and the wind starts to blow at a good 30-40 miles per hour. A torrential downpour proceeds to dump from the sky. At first you try to avoid getting wet and then at some point you just give up and say screw it, there is nothing you could do, go with it. Now we get to navigate the dinghy off the beach into the now roiling waves stirred up by the thunderstorm. We made it back to the boat, relatively unscathed, now I get to put away all the groceries and make dinner, YEAH!

Ah……the joys of cruising………..

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