Coiba to Boca Chica
This must be the definition of Paradise; water so clear you can see 40 feet to the sandy bottom, sunshine with puffy white clouds and lovely cooling breezes each and every day. Myriads of tropical fish, neon blues and florescent greens and oranges darting in and out of coral heads that look like giant mushrooms. Schools of large Manta Rays greet you at the entrance of the bay while dolphin dance in your wake as you leave. Yes, we found it, you knew we would.
For the past week we have been gunk-holing around the islands of Panama's Coiba National Park - pristine islands protected for their unique and evolving bird, fish, and animal populations. We have been immersed in beauty: exceptional dives with clearest water and magnificent multitudes of colorful tropical fish, incredibly turquoise anchorages, and white sand beaches surrounded by lush jungles filled with parrots and monkeys squabbling or squawking over some lost banana or berry. However, calm anchorages were rare and the changing weather had kept us moving around. Rolly anchorages have been the norm and we were both low on sleep and supplies.
Do you ever wonder what we must do all day? Funny thing is, there still never seems to be enough time. We cant just run to the store for a loaf of bread these days, so we bake it. Time consuming. We cant call the plumber when the sink wont drain or the potty wont flush, we have become plumbers. And we cant just plug into an outlet for power or connect to the internet whenever we want to. Dois spends long hours working on keeping our generator, solar panels and diesel engine spinning the magic juice that keeps it all going. Water and laundry are another huge time consumer and while the end results are lovely, locating water sources and jerry canning it back to the boat and washing everything by hand is, simply put, time consuming.
But between the baking and the washing, painting and varnishing, rust and mold removal, the oiling, wrenching, adjusting, replacing, unstopping and rebuilding (whew!), we find time to snorkel or swim or kayak or go for a walk on a beach with the dogs or visit a small village and take pictures or maybe just grab a good book and read for a bit.
We left Isla Cavada in the Seca Island Group a few days ago, having run out of just about everything. We weren't in danger of starving, but we were out of anything fresh and were limited to canned items, bread and water to drink. It was time to go to the mainland and we headed for Boca Chica. We sailed out into a 10 knot breeze from the south and a calm sea. Dolphins joined us along the way and Ginger was thrilled to see her buddies. Daisy most certainly cannot see or hear them anymore, but seems content to sleep below while being rocked by the rhythm of a sailing boat.
At just about five miles from the entrance into the islands and inlets that surround Boca Chica, Dois noticed a dark wind line about a mile or so ahead of us. At first we dismissed it assuming the afternoon wind was piping up a bit, but the line was exceptionally dark and what the binoculars revealed was surprising. It was hard to believe what our eyes were seeing.
We were sailing in a fairly fresh south wind into what seemed to be a storm from the north. As we got nearer, it was as if we were looking through a window at a dark sea tossed by breaking waves and long streaks of vivid white foam. We were a few hundred feet from the wind line and still we were still in calm water. We couldn't turn around it may have taken slightly longer to get to us, but get to us it would. So I began to batten the hatches and left Dois to prepare us for our fate.
In minutes we were taking waves on deck and were engulfed in spray. I fastened the windows into our spray dodger barely in time to see them obscured with water like driving through the car wash. The wind gusted to thirty then forty knots and Dois furled staysail. Realizing this was impossible weather to make the difficult Boca Chica entrance we headed for a small harbor directly up wind and seeing all the rocks around us we prayed our charts were accurate. We powered directly into the wind and waves but our speed dropped from six knots to barely one. The last two miles into the bay were the hardest as gusts and waves would literally stop us in our tracks. Then Dois would urge Ashika on, finding a way around a wave or wind angle and she would gain a knot or two of speed. We inched our way into the safe harbor on a tide low enough that the waves crashed against most of the rocks and the rising white water helped us distinguish the rocks from the breaking white caps. The sounds were deafening with crashing waves and wind screaming in our rigging.
We knew the charts were slightly off in this area. The trick was to figure out in what direction were they off. We tried to plot the rocks we saw so we could estimate the ones that may be awash. The ones not plotted on the charts were the ones we most worried about and we looked for white water or the slicks made by up-welling water. As we neared land the waves diminished until at last we threw our anchor into about twenty feet of water in front of a cliff that would shelter us from the wind. We were still exposed to some swell and hoped the wind might blow itself out in a few hours. We clung to the beach and hoped for the best.
The wind blew all night. We set our anchor alarm in case we dragged or swung toward the beach. We did not anticipate spending the night here so we had dropped our anchor as close as we could to the beach and in the middle of the night Dois worried we might swing into shallows or rocks if the wind changed direction. All night he checked the spare compass he had set up near the bed to be sure we continued to point north. For once the howling north wind was a comfort because we knew it would keep us of the beach.
These were "gap" winds that blow from the Carribean and can blow for a week or more, so we decided to run for Boca Chica at first light as the wind had come down. We raised the anchor and made our run using a short cut to save time in the ebbing tide. The inlets to Boca Chica are narrow with boat eating rocks, reefs, and sand bars everywhere. We feared the current might be strong enough to swing our bow off onto these obstacles so Dois tried to keep our speed up for control. Our depth sounder starts giving false accounts at about four and a half knots, a speed usually good for navigating in shallow water. But the current was running about two and a half knots against us so to maintain two or three knots of headway our speed caused the depth sounder to blink erroneous numbers. We couldn't rely on it.
With our hearts in our mouths we slowly worked our way through the maze toward the final reef - a shallow one with big rocks awash at both ends. The water on the reef drops from one to three feet at low tide and Ashika is six feet deep. Time was against us as we came along side the reef trying to decide if we had enough water to cross. The swift current made the water murky and we could not see the reef. Knowing the rocks ahead I looked up from the plotter and insisted we make our turn, but Dois argued to hold out a little longer. Our tension and tempers grew I became more insistent; "turn, turn!" A few more seconds and Dois slowed the boat and plunged the helm over and we held our breath; fearing the dreaded crunch of fiberglass and rock. As we glided over the reef the the sounder flickered to life showing nine, and then eleven feet of water. Over the radio we heard the familiar voice of a cruising friend, "Ashika Ashika, Welcome to Boca Chica."
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Captain Dois and Lauri the Admiral contribute to this sailblog (slog)
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