Sand Dollar Pays The Piper
SAND DOLLAR, DAY 7, 9 p.m.: "This coast is fearsome!" Cades voice over the SSB was loud and clear, even though Sand Dollar already was a few hundred miles from us, beating along the coast of Colombia toward Venezuela. "We only made 12 miles over the last 24 hours. Tacked 12 times, and its still howling 35 knots. Man, I wouldnt wish this trip on anyone."
Wed been talking to Cade and Lisa on the SSB every night since we parted ways in Linton, on the Panamanian coastour radio date set at 2100. As Ithaka headed east from Linton, back to the slow cruising pleasures of the San Blas, Sand Dollar was plugging away on their uphill climb against the trades, around Cabo de la Vela and then Punta de Gallinas, two of the most feared and dangerous capes in the Caribbean, and toward the new job Cade had accepted. Out of the blue, while he and Lisa were cruising the San Blas, with plans to mosey around Panama for the season, hed been offered an attractive position teaching high school chemistry and physics at the Escuela Bella Vista, a K-12 program in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Cades always wanted to be a teacher, and the prospect of doing so in South America enticed them, but the job was upwind, and the opening bells of the new school year were about to ring. They needed to hustle not to be tardy.
For a variety of reasons, Cade and Lisa decided to do the voyage in one and two-day hops, against the conventional wisdom of avoiding the cape and sailing it all in one fell swoop first way way northlike five days northand then tacking south toward Aruba. Sand Dollar chose a close-to-shore route that would take them along the Colombian and Venezuelan coast, a geography whose few anchorages are inhospitable at the best of times. Other than the peaceful motorsail from San Blas to Cartagena, from then on they would head directly into already strong trades, which in that neighborhood are complicated by powerful and sudden winds funneling down the mountains, making for sometimes horrendous seas in relatively shallow water. On top of all that, they were making their way, alone, through serious drug-runner country, hoping not to stumble into the wrong people at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Every night at nine, a group of cruising sailors, spread out along the Panamanian coastSimba, Street Legal, Gringo Joe, and Ithakatuned in to see how their friends on Sand Dollar were faring. Then, every morning on the Northwest Carribean and Panama Connection Nets, all the other cruisers exploring this region tuned in to pay close attention to the "Boats Underway" segment, when Sand Dollar would check in, and everyone could chart their position in case of problems, no doubt getting some vicarious excitement without actually having to be out there. With twice-a-day radio contact, I thinkI hopeSand Dollar felt that for a few moments, at least, they werent totally alone.
With Lisa and Cade on our minds, the radio chats have been the psychological parentheses that embraced our days, and the contrast between our lives and theirs during this time has been dramatic. While theyve been battling the elements, weve been moseying. We left Linton two days after they did, and made a lightning-fast 50-mile run back to the San Blasthrough dramatic thunder-and-lightning squalls I could have done without. We arrived in the Lemon Cays, and had our anchor down by mid-afternoon. Here, we look forward to hanging out, swimming and fishing, and reconnecting with two Kuna families wed enjoyed meeting when wed stopped here briefly a few weeks before.
The East Lemons form a horseshoe- shaped anchorage with reefs and islands corralling 300 degrees. Depths ranges from 6 to 40 feet; were in 15. Around us are picture-postcard cays packed with coconut palms. On each of the islands are a couple of huts where Kuna families live and work. Lenny, an 18-year-old who lives on one of the islands, regularly sells us freshly caught fish and lobster, when I havent caught our own, and one day he gave me a tour of the best cuts in the several reefs in which to hunt. Weve visited his family in their hut several times, and bought traditional Kuna bread from them. One of his cousins has a small propane stove and is a first-class baker. They also have a separate hut, as do most island families, for smoking fish. Without electricity for refrigeration, its a necessity, and with plenty of smoked fish I feel as if Im home in a fine deli.
Every day, lots of ulus sail and paddle past Ithaka. At first they stopped so the women could show us their molas; we acquired a couple more, and now they know us and just wave as they go by. A large ulu came by one day, and to our astonishment, an enterprising man offered fresh lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, carrots, eggs, mangos, and cucumbers from the mainland. His prices were high, naturally, but what an incredible service! Were in the lap of luxury out here, especially compared to Sand Dollar. I think of us as being like the remora I saw riding the back of a spotted eagle ray. Effortlessly along for the ride.
SAND DOLLAR, DAY 9, 9: "You guys are STILL still at the Lemons?" asked Lisa over the SSB. I sheepishly admitted we hadnt budged an inch, and didnt plan to for several more days. Were the only boat here and loving it.
"I wish we were there, too," she said. "The boats doing great, but shes taking a real beating. Im finding salt water in places I never knew salt water could get into!" Sand Dollar was pushing onward, under reefed main and jib, and Lisa described some of the Venezuelan coast they were passing as barren desert. "There isnt a tree or anything green anywhere. Just mountains of sand as far as the eye can see. No houses. No towns. We havent seen any ships in days. We havent seen another sailboat since we left Cartagena. Its very lonely out here."
Suddenly, I feel very lucky not to be on a schedule, not to have to be anywhere. The San Blas is incredibly seductive, and life here is generally undemanding. Weve met boats who literally havent left Kuna Yala in years! They extend and re-extend their visas. Reg and Debbie on Runner are good examples; theyve been here going on five years now. Reg explained it to me one Monday night in an anchorage so clear its known as "The Swimming Pool."
"You think its ever going to get any better than this? Look where were anchored. Its in a totally protected lagoon. The waters crystal clear." (Hes right, you can see starfish 30 feet below you.) "The sand is perfect holding," he continued. "The divings great, and if you dont kill anything, dont worry because every couple days some Kunas in an ulu come through with fish and crab and lobster. You can even getm to bring you out diesel or gasoline. Tell me, you think its going to be any better anywhere else? Well, I dont, so hell, were not leaving any time soon!" Reg and Deb are institutions here, considered by their fellow cruisers to be The Mayors of The Swimming Pool. They organize a weekly Monday night pot-luck supper and garbage bonfire, which brings cruisers together from all over, and Reg is one of the net controllers on The Panama Connection Net. If theres something, anything, you need to know, ask Reg. Hes always happy to help.
SAND DOLLAR, DAY 14, 9 p.m.: "We got a problem," said Cade. "Were getting pretty low on fuel, and we gotta find some out here pretty soon. Were burning it faster than you can believe trying to motorsail into these winds!"
Considering the isolation of where they were, this was not good. With beastly headwinds and continuous motor-sailing, Sand Dollar found themselves getting pretty light pretty fast. Cade is a sailor, first and foremost, and hates motoring, so while some cruisers can tell you precisely what their engines consume in any conditions, being more a purist, hed been hypothesizing about how much fuel Sand Dollar would consume under continuous motor-sailing conditions. Now he knew, the news wasnt good, and he was needing to write some new fuel-consumption equations. Theyd have to fill up somewhere along the coast the next day. Trouble was, there was nothing on the charts that offered a place to duck in.
SAND DOLLAR, DAY 15, 9 p.m.: "I just paid more for 50 gallons of diesel than I ever paid for fuel in my whole life, and more than Im ever going to pay again," Cade said. Somehow, on the VHF Cade and Lisa had managed to contact a Colombian boat who could bring diesel out to them, but the man gouged them criminally on the price. "But the money was only half of it. We had to do the fuel transfer at sea, and the seas were high. The transfer was awkward, messy, and punishing. We took a beating just getting the stuff. No major damage, but lots of hammering."
Thats when I really started feeling guilty, because our only hammering in the last week or so has been on conch, lobster, and crab shells.
SAND DOLLAR, DAY 16, 9 p.m.: "Well, we got another problem," Cade said. "Somethings fouled our prop. Putting the boat in reverse didnt untangle it. Its pitch black outside, so I cant do anything about it. The wind is 32 knots on the nose, and we cant make much way in it. Well just have to try to stay clear of any dangers through the night, and inch forward." For the first time, ever, we could hear the frustration in his voice. We all offered to take turns coming on frequency every few hours during the night, but he said no thanks. We assured him wed be on the morning net to find out how well they made it through.
SAND DOLLAR, DAY 17, 8:20 a.m.: "Man, diving that prop was a mess," said Cade, when we checked in with each other just before the net started. "Sure enough, we had some line wrapped tightly around the shaft. I was finally able get under there and cut it off. That one scared me." Cade had regained his chipper southern Southern accent. There was much relief all around. They were on the move again.
SAND DOLLAR, DAY 18, 9 p.m.: "Were getting close, finally, to turning the corner!" said Lisa. "We needed a lay day to get some rest, and the wind is howling anyway, so were staying anchored here tonight. We swam ashore this morning and walked around. I made Cade a birthday cake, and alls well, but this coast has been brutal. Very dramatic, but really brutal. Wed never recommend this route to anybody."
Bernadette and I look at each other. What an ordeal.
"You guys still at Green?" Yes, Lisa, my friend, now were tucked in behind Kanildup. On the Gringo charts its been renamed Green Island. We like it here. The outside coral reef is huge and spectacular for diving, and were planning to stay here for a while longer, maybe forever.
"Sounds so good..." she sighed.
Getting from one island to another down here is decidedly not brutal. You need good light to squeak between the reefs when entering and leaving anchorages, but theres little swell inside the archipelago, and distances from one stunning anchorage to another rarely exceed 10 miles. Cruisers in the San Blas (Sand Dollar included, when they were here) joke about actually raising "the white thing that lives under the sail cover." Most days, conditions are so gentle that to get from one place to another, even though you may start out by sailing there, usually you end up with a motor-sailing experience. The only sail that gets to see the light of day on a regular basis is the genny.
These days, theres not too much wind. The exception, of course, is when some squirrelly and powerful breeze briefly attacks from the mainland. This happens every few days or so during the rainy season, mostly when youre not expecting it, which generally means at night. There can be sudden blasts of wind funneling down from the green rampart of mountains along the coast, which are only a few miles away. These wind storms, sometimes with heavy rains and sometimes with none, can knock your socks off at a consistent 30-40 knots, generally out of the southwest, and last for less than a couple of hours, then peter out to nothing, leaving us suffused with adrenaline and not likely to return quickly to snooze. (Nocturnal excitements have always been my excuse for afternoon naps.) The weather systems in the San Blas are sandwiched between offshore and mountain forces, so some days we get an hour or two of black skies with torrential rains that can fill our dinghy to overflow. Then, 10 minutes later, the sky turns clear blue and bright, and during all of this there may be fewer than five knots of wind and sometimes none at all. Its eerie. But I think of Sand Dollar, and I dont complain.
So while our buddies are thrashing ahead, were incredibly impressed and proud of them but equally glad not to be living their dream up close. San Blas cruising is a much easier kettle of fish. And Ive always been up front about being a wuss.
SAND DOLLAR, DAY 23, 8:20 a.m.: On the SSB, its pure jubilation from Lisa, who boomed out to us (and to everyone else that was "lurking" before the morning net) that they were anchored one quarter mile from the yacht club in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Safe, sound, pooped, and exuberant after 23 days of beating, frequently in gale-force conditions. Theyd bargained for precious fuel, and successfully performed risky transfers. Theyd anchored in unlikely, god-forsaken, and sometimes spooky places. Theyd prevailed against wind, wave and conventional wisdom. Now, within the hour, they would motor proudly up to the dock that would be their new home for the next school year. In their tanks they had but 10 gallons of water and 10 gallons of fuel.
"Sort of skinny on the liquids," Lisa laughed, "but we made it!" Damn straight they did, and every sailor in the western Caribbean whod been following their aruduous trek for the past three weeks breathed a collective sigh of relief, and saluted them.
Nice going, Sand Dollar.
e-mail the Bernons: Ithaka@CruisingWorld.com