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Sitting on top of the world in Lake Gatun

Published on March 16, 2013 by in Paradise

canal_blog_spaceClosing Doors Behind Lead to What Waits Behind the Doors Ahead

Sitting on top of the world in Lake Gatun, the world’s largest man-made lake when it was built almost 100 years ago, we’re through the first set of three locks and it’s dark. A long day, after a long week of anticipation, our first step in transiting the Panama Canal was one of delayed precision. Finally after waiting anchored in the “Flats” (the area where all boats and small ships arrive and wait to receive their official pilots or advisors), Cristobal Canal Authority delivered our advisor and one by one dispatched our group of three sailboats to follow a 100 foot wide tanker through the first set of 3 locks. We all motored, actually drifted in neutral with the strong winds pushing us at almost 3 knots speed. As we approached the locks we used our engines hard in reverse to slow down the winds movement.

Once at the entrance the INNcredible Sea Lodge, being the largest of the three sailboats, took the middle position and the other monohulls rafted up on either side. The Canal rules state that each boat has to have four line handlers besides the Captain so I hired three professionals plus First Mate Andrew, but the other two boats had their motley crews of geriatric nomads handle their lines. Once rafted up the outer two boats were responsible for tying off to the canal walls and managing the lines as we rose. Their line-handling skills on the boat to my starboard were scary and near disastrous at times, almost all the time.

With the INNcredible Sea Lodge in the middle, I was in charge of moving the mass of boats forward and kept to the middle of the locks, together we were over 50 feet wide. With the powerful winds at our back reversing our engines in unison was very important. And to steer this mass of rafted-together fiberglass, especially when hit by the swirling eddies of the ship in front of us, I had to yell orders port and starboard to their respective skippers to power engines forward, reverse and neutral as needed to keep us moving straight and at times rapidly counteracting those eddies. Once in far enough that the lock’s doors could begin to close, the line handlers had to pull in their lines fore and aft to control the sideways movement. This is where all hell broke loose with the starboard boat’s line handlers either oblivious to the importance of their job or plainly inept at the task. I feel for the portside boat that more often than not came precariously close to smashing into the Canal walls. The INNcredible Sea Lodge was in the middle and wouldn’t get bruised by either wall but somehow despite the close calls those geriatric nomad line handlers pulled through, literally.

Being in the middle but more importantly being three times as wide and tall as the other two boats, we had the view to beat all of the entire spectacle. As the first locks doors began to close so did the feeling of closure to both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, waters that we had spent the last 8 months, almost 6,000 miles and an INNcredible journey from France to Panama. The doors closed and my emotions were more sad then excited at that time. Once filled we rose to the top and the view back to the Caribbean as dusk settled in gave us another last look.

But new doors were opening in front of us as we motored in mass into the next lock. Doors closed and up we rose. It takes only nine minutes once everyone is in place for the water to rush in and raise all 28 feet. That’s powerful and amazing. By now dark had settled in and the overview back was lit up and spectacular. One more lock to move into and up for a total of 85 feet. Doesn’t sound like much height but believe me the overview back felt many times as high. As the final doors opened we entered a new world, albeit in black, with the surreal feeling that we were floating on top of the world. After an exciting long day we moored at 2030. I prepared a meal of onions, peppers, garlic, chunks of fresh pumpkin like squash pressure cooked in coconut milk, ginger, spices and some hot sauce and served over rice. Remember I had to feed five hungry men. All they could eat and we still had enough to mix with eggs for breakfast to start our longest day.

The next morning started before the sun and we were motor sailing our 28 mile way through Lake Gatun by 0700. Maintaining a steady 7 knots we were the first to arrive (1100) at the next set of locks – this time to start our descent. These locks seemed older but maybe I now had more time to focus on the details. I marveled at the giant steel doors hand riveted over 100 years ago looking a bit medieval but durable and amazingly functional. The way down consisted of the aforementioned Pedro Miguel Locks followed only a half mile ahead by the most famous Miraflores Locks. Five or so years prior Diana, Bruce and Sandra and I (like thousands do each year) visited the Miraflores Locks’ museum complete with three stories of observation decks and witnessed, albeit as bystanders, a massive cruise ship and container ship pass through. Did I think then I would be captaining such an INNcredible Sea Lodge through someday? Let’s just say I hoped I would be.

The observation decks were full of spectators and we were now right behind two party Canal Tour boats full of hundreds of tourists listening through loud speakers to the guide telling the story of the Canal. I recognized it all but we were preoccupied each time by the need to motor carefully into place into and out of each lock. Once in and tied off I could relax and walk about onboard taking pictures and observing all that was happening. When those final doors opened at the bottom of the three locks and the Pacific Ocean laid ahead the excitement of the next challenge, 4,000 miles along the Pacific coastline of Central America started filling in as fast as the waters filled each lock.

I sit now moored facing the Bridge of the Americas (all lit with colorful buses and cars streaming against the night sky) crossing high above the Pacific entrance to the Great Panama Canal, truly one of the modern wonders of the world.

 
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Sharks Guaranteed – Coiba, Panama

Published on March 15, 2013 by in Paradise

Leaving Ensenada Naranja on a run for Isla Coiba, Panama’s closest likeness to the Galapagos, we saw snakes, yellow-bellied poisonous sea snakes en masse floating as we passed by miles out in the ocean. Not big but deadly. Moments later dolphins teasing us with their speed and agility water-dancing all around the boat. Rays flying, flipping, flopping. Then what looked like a small log floating by complete with sea bird riding turns out with head up to be a giant loggerhead turtle. All the day the frequency increased as if there were 1 or more turtles per acre as we sliced threw miles of ocean in our approach to this marine reserve and group of islands known as Parque Coiba. Coiba was part of the Galapagos Hot Spot 70 million years ago which broke up and drifted apart to where it is 30 million years ago with more volcanic action still defining its landscape.

Its isolation from other landmasses hosted its own evolution. I chose to explore its underwater world. We dove two spots: one called Frijoles and the other Church with Dive Coiba’s divemaster. Their slogan is “Sharks Guaranteed”. Within minutes after our decent they delivered and white tip sharks seemed to be lurking around and under every wall and canyon. I’ve captured close encounters galore on my GoPro. The pendulum swang from 6-8 foot roaming sharks to 3-inch long sea horses and all the neighborhood watery characters in between. One bizzaro character was an impressionist and its turns out a mime as well. Among the rocks, growths of different colors both coated and sprouting from the many volcanic boulders but occasionally there was an impostor.The divemaster was so excitied to point out this thing. I came in for close inspection and stared hoping to see what he saw. Under the water it’s like charades because you can’t talk, you can only give hand signals and mimic the action, look or movement of the creature. I was trying hard to see. Then finally this stony textured reddish colored mass attached to the rock became an impressionistic masterpiece of a fish. Eyes, mouth and ultimately overall shape began to come into view like seeing an image in a cloud. The creature was so good at what it does that it didn’t flinch even when I became eye to eye, finding out afterwards back on board they are poisonous. To test myself I swam away and came back around to see it again but its impression eluded me just as one loses view of an image in a cloud. But i knew it was still there but where?

More sharks, more sharks, moray eels, spotted eels, thousands of tropical fish comingling and passing through in schools, whole universities in fact. Then I saw another, this time on my own no one else around, the perfect underwater mime, covered nose to tail in bumpy craggy orange textured stone, appearing to be growing out from a rock not blinking, not budging but I dare not touch it. But i did photograph it and when i get to a wifi I’ll post it – the perfect impostor, the street mime of the ocean, if only I could drop a coin in his cup and see him or her move.

 
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Big Storm hits Panama’s east coast

Published on March 7, 2013 by in Paradise

Near Hurricane storm brewed up in the Caribbean and sent its fury headed toward Panama.

After months of peaceful weather sailing through the Windward Islands, across the top of South America and along the east coast of Panama, the first real sustained storm hit last Saturday night and just broke today (Wednesday). Our timing purely by scheduling and coincidence had the INNcredible Sea Lodge make its last sail to the breakwater at the entrance of the Panama Canal this past Saturday afternoon. That day the winds were light, the seas relaxed and our entry into Shelter Bay marina was in calm winds and flat water.

What a great name for this marina – Shelter Bay. And by Saturday night we needed all the shelter it could deliver. The swells began breaking over the breakwater and the winds howled endlessly. Torrents of rain came now and again. The storm continued for three days. And we thanked our lucky stars many times each day that we made it here when we did.Sunday night the electric company lost all its power and all the lights all around went off, except ours – boat batteries. Other than that I don’t like marinas. All the conveniences seduce me into the comforts of life as we all expect. All well and good but I prefer to be at anchor with hardly a soul around, clean water for swimming right off the boat, gorgeous scenery and sailing near every day discovering new places. All that’s coming but now we’ll be in the Pacific. Do you know this great ocean got its name because of how calm and peaceful it is – we’ll see.

Making a transit through the Panama Canal in a small boat is no simple matter. We have a local agent Enrique Plummer who is handling the details for a handsome fee. And there are so many fees direct and indirect from line rentals, 3 linehandlers (not counting Andrew) and an advisor on board, official boat measurer, Port Captain fee, Ag inspection fee, etc, etc. that are adding up to about $2500. Then add in the time docked at the marina while waiting for our first possible slot in the Canal Authority’s schedule and we may be well over $3000. But think of the alternative. Sailing south along the east coast of South America past Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina to that sacred revered tip, Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan (do you know that even Magellan didn’t live to go through the straits) may have taken several months. We would have been halfway down by now  in Rio. But that would mean by the time we got to the Cape the early stages of winter may have set in. We probably would have to wait until the following spring for that elusive weather window to get around the infamous tip of South America . Once around (if we made it around) we’d still have a formidable trek up the west coast of Chile, Peru, Ecuador (thousands of miles). Sounds like an exciting trip down and around but it would probably be about this same time but in 2014 that I would be passing Panama City on the other end of the Canal starting my journey north to California. So I decided to pay the big bucks and go through the Panama Canal.

I’ll definitely share the Canal experience with you as it happens this weekend.

 
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Columbus was here in 1502

Published on March 2, 2013 by in Paradise

This deep long bay (Bahia)  gave refuge from the sea for Columbus on his fourth journey to the new world in 1502. He found this bay perfect and called it Puerto Bello. A hundred years later Puerto Bello became the major port for the shipping of gold and silver from the Spanish colonies of South and Central America back to Spain. Fortifications were built but it wasn’t long before pirates saw Puerto Bello as a plum just waiting to be picked. Captain Morgan sailed in with 450 men and the Spanish garrison of only a hundred surrendered without a fight. Morgan wasn’t the only scoundrel to raid what is now called Portobello.

There are remnants of the fortifications with rusty cannons and those classic cylindrical towers so typical of Spanish coastal forts to walk about and admire. The Customs House is well restored and houses a museum. The town’s church has fame of its own and has become a mecca of sorts for many. Inside behind glass is the beloved statue of the Black Christ.

The town has all the elements of order and  good design but the current day residents show no sense of pride as their garbage is everywhere except in their two garbage cans around the town square. The lovely smell of burning garbage including plastics perfumes the air. Four small super mercados have good prices like $4 per six-pack of Panama beer, $1.75 for large pineapples and a bag of about 15  bananas for $1.25.

Overall, an interesting place whose surrounding landscape is beautiful and probably looks the same as before and certainly worth sailing into and anchoring for the night 511 years after Christopher Columbus.

 
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Basura

Published on March 2, 2013 by in Paradise

Basura aka garbage is scattered throughout Paradise. What is it about people everywhere that allows them to live amidst their garbage. One can’t blame all the garbage on the Kunas, after all this is the westernmost part of the Caribbean and due to the ever-present easterly tradewinds is the recipient of all the crap that floats from east to west.

But even in their own villages, where you can see a level of tidiness, garbage lies here and there and looks like it has for a long time. It’s a problem, no doubt, for them because where do they put the garbage even if they did collect it all? They live on islands. Their young generation must be affected, lulled into a state of oblivion growing up watching no one pick up the garbage.

It’s probably totally unfair to think every one doesn’t care about their garbage for if that was the case the place would be waist high in it and the smells would be unbearable. But with just a little more effort their paradise here in the San Blas islands could be immaculate.

I propose that if the Kuna elders, or better said the Kuna leaders young and old, declare two weeks each year, one week every six months, a national pride week where every one makes a coordinated effort on every island to collect and properly dispose of the garbage. Make it an event, a celebration of the beauty that is all around them. And get us tourists, the cruising sailing community, to pitch-in, literally. I think all would be surprised how much help would rise to the occasion.

And a sense of pride would shine brighter than it all ready does here.

 
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How many days can a man take in Paradise?

Published on February 26, 2013 by in Paradise

How many days can a man take in paradise? I don’t know; let me count the days. To me part of the being in paradise is absence of money or at least where money goes so far that it will last forever. When I can’t find that in the places I visit, the word Paradise is off the table for a descriptor.

I can remember my first trip to Puerto Vallarta back in the 80s. Leaving the old Buenaventura Hotel one could walk a few blocks into the barrio and buy a fresh orange juice squeezed in front of you for a couple pesos then walk a little more and sit down at an open air joint, enjoy too cold cervezas, a bowl of frijoles de hoy and a stack of tortillas for the equivalent of $2. Now that’s paradise. Of course the streets of PV don’t qualify but enjoying your hard earned dollar go so far is a wonderful feeling. In all my INNcredible journey that feeling has eluded me everywhere we’ve been. No matter what currency you’re counting in, food costs are very much the same with few exceptions.

Well yesterday, here in the San Blas islands, more precisely in the Holandes Cays, where all the criteria for paradise on a beauty and weather level are met, finally I got that wonderful feeling of money paradise.  First a Kuna fisherman comes to our boat in his dugout and offers some fish. I pick out four nice yellow jacks and offer $5, he takes $7. Then we dinghy into the adjacent island where three families live in their grass huts. The ladies buy a couple molas. But I notice quite a stash of conch in this other Kuna’s dugout. I ask to buy 4 large conch and watch him wield his machete and pull these globs out of the shells as if it were easy but couldn’t hide the snotty  mess however. My mind quickly fast forwarded to how I was going to prepare these globs of conch and so I asked for two coconuts. He obliged and wacked away with a few swipes of his machete and there they were. When I asked how much?, the old man motioned to the matriarch, all dressed and adorned in Kuna women’s wear, for the answer. I braced myself for a shellacing. But to my pleasant surprise the grand total for the four conch and two coconuts was $6. Immediately I felt blissfully calm and totally happy that paradise really does exist if not just for the moment here in the Kuna Yala.

Those four yellow jacks fed 6 of us for dinner and today the coconut breaded conch fritters will feed the 6 of us again. If this keeps up one could stay here for a long time, certainly another criteria for the word Paradise

 

 
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A world of dugout canoes and colorful people

Published on February 24, 2013 by in Paradise

Paradise!? That’s a strong word that certainly is up for interpretation and a host of varying criteria but here we are in the island nation of the Kuna Yala where scattered throughout this reef-strewn crystal clear water in many shades of blue are coconut palm studded sandy islands inhabited by in village form or just a couple families or uninhabited. For many these islands are the visual form of paradise and to look at the amenities that are so basic to us but so lacking here most Americans would say no thank you to life on these islands in paradise.

But to visit them by sailboat and look in on a way of life that has changed little for hundreds of years is an adventure in itself. The scenery is gorgeous, the water is 85 degrees, the sun is strong as well as the wind. The Kunas are the second shortest people on earth next to the Pygmies. The Kuna women dress colorfully and adorn their legs, arms and faces. This is a matriarchal society and the husband moves into the woman’s family hut with multiple generations all living under one grass roof, dirt floor and no windows because the breeze has no problem finding its way through the grass walls. Cozy, real cozy.

Men and sometimes women and sometimes the whole family show up in dugouts selling lobsters, and the handicrafts like their famous molas. But there is no ice, no cold beer, not fruits and vegetables, if you’re coming to visit you’d better bring your own everything. And I always travel with candy for the ninos because I cannot step onto any island without the cry of Santa Claus or Papa Noel and all the children waiting with expectations of something. Sugar, something sweet and treat-like is the universal token offering – hundreds of lollipops, gummibears and the like. Chocolate melts in your hand here.

What an experience, what a treat for me to swim in this beautiful water and see this culture but even paradise has its issues. But for the moment just close your eyes and think of a tropical paradise and that’s where we are right now.

 
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Colombia

Leaving Aruba at dusk sailing into the night heading toward and along the north coast of Colombia, we ran with the wind but the swell was a bit off to our side making for a rock and roll ride. But as dawn awaken the misty images of layer upon layer of mountains ran right down to the shoreline. This coast was uninhabited for the most part or at least uninhabited from a visual sense. I did see a village of thatch roofs tucked into a deep protected bay off in the distance. Rounding the point aka Cabo to Santa Marta was rough and majestic with the winds howling in full force.

Santa Marta is Colombia’s oldest city and has Colombia’s oldest church, the Catherdral Basilica. The Friendship park was quite a find bustling on a Saturday night with folks everywhere, outdoor cakes, restaurants, street food vendors and a totall tree shaded park in amongst the old narrow streets and three story plastered buildings. As much as we would have liked to stay longer in Santa Marta and onward to Cartagena, weather was predicted to increase both winds to 40+ and swells to over 3 meters within 2 days. So Sunday morning we set sail for the San Blas Islands, a 400 mile run through Colombia’s notorious wild windy coast then onwards in open seas crossing the Caribbean. Flying at 7-10 knots we hit 16 knots surfing waves. Each day waves built to the 3 meters predicted but we had got out and ahead of the worst.

Excitement came with an acrobatic pod of dolphins that jump 10+ feet out of 3 meter swells all around us as they passed by – the highest most exciting dolphin show on earth right here in the middle of the open Caribbean sea.

That wonderful sound ZZZZIIINNNGGGGG! went off several times and after two lost fish we finally landed a 30′ Wahoo who ran out our line a football fields length before Andrew could begin the fight to reel it in. Wahoo for dinner last night and guess what’s for dinner tonight too. Delicious!!!

After 49 serious sailing hours I brought the INNcredible in as dawn made way through the darkness so we could negotiate the reef lined San Blas Islands. And we made it and are now at anchor off Isla Provenir.

 
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Curacao

First impression sailing into Curacao was rather bleak but captivating nonetheless. Upon closer inspection the spartan landscapes began to show its complexity and unique combination of contradictions. Volcanic layers of welded ash, lava flows folded by plate tectonics with broken synclines and anticlines pushed skyward and eroded into eclectic forms. Cloak these forms with a vegetation not expected in the Caribbean with pillar cactus, barrel cactus, Spanish swords aka agave, acacia like tree/shrubs with mangroves right at the waters edge. We anchored for almost a week in a secluded anchorage inside what is known as Spanish Waters and got to see and experience this unique environment live and up close both day and night. Unforgettable is the best word to wrap up my feeling for Curacao.

Of course there is Willamsted with its colorful buildings lining the malecon and the  giant cruise liners that dwarf the city skyline, the swinging pontoon bridge, the fish mongers and produce vendors and of course tons of ‘brand name’ stores for shoppers to do what they do everywhere – shop.

On our exit last night we actually motored into the main harbor opening the pontoon bridge past a monster cruise ship to dock at Immigration and then back through the swinging bridge past all the folks lined up on both sides waiting and watching for us to pass and the bridge swung back so they could walk to the other side.

Off into the sunset, we set sail for Aruba some 75 miles to the west and with the wind just off our backs we arrived before my more conservative plan at 3:30 am and had to tie up and dock and sleep for a couple hours until customs opened at 6am.

Andrew and I did sneak in two dives off the reefed coast of Curacao, gorgeously clear waters lots of colorful sponges, corals and reef fish. The highlight, especially for Andrew was in the last minutes of the last dive a Giant Manta gracefully swims by along the reef’s edge. I captured some good footage close up of a spotted Moray eel.

 
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Bonaire – so many dives, so little time

That’s the tourist bureau’s slogan for Bonaire on their Dive Guide. Known for its shore dives where divers rent pickup trucks and tanks and drive to marked spots, suit up and just walk in from the shore and eventually slip under the  water and drop over the nearby sloping reef wall that runs along most of the island, I so far have all boat dives under my belt here. I will fit in a shore dive or two before we depart for the next island Curacao. Boat dives take you where fewer go and today’s east coast dives where very few go.

The effort takes more planning and experienced divemasters but the rewards are untouchable. The east coast of Bonaire faces the open ocean, the Caribbean which is wide open to the Atlantic so there’s swells and currents and sometimes more turbidity. But today we were treated to turtles large and larger, swimming, eating and sleeping, a green moray eel the length of two yard sticks, a nurse shark, barracuda not to mention all sorts of other less celebrity but nonetheless beautiful and interesting fish. Saw so many turtles that we were always looking one way or another at one, sometimes two at once. Also experienced harvesting the dreaded lionfish with three hunters along with us, they speared every one of these voracious out-of-town reef predators they saw and eventually cleaned them and will eat them for dinner. There is a concerted effort here to eradicate if possible the lionfish. And Bonaire’s reefs are really all about the corals, fans, sponges in amazing vivid colors. I hope my go pro captured some of the great moments of close encounters with our neighbors below the ocean’s surface.

I’m sure there is nightlife here but after a day of diving, it’s hard not to just fall below the sheets and hit the pillow.

 
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