Bluefields Nicaragua to Bocas del Toro Panama by Pacific Flying Proa.

I have been in Panama for a month or two now but here is the story of the last jump for those who are interested:

After three days in Bluefields Nicaragua procuring a new GPS and trying to download charts into it without success I could not wait to get back to sea -life moored to the municipal dock lacked any privacy and there were plenty of rough characters about though I was safe enough especially in the daylight. Around midday I cast off and sped southward down the lagoon towards Rama Cay but the wind failed me at the last moment and I anchored by a small island a mile short of Rama. Some of the Rama Indians came by on their way out to the lagoon´s sea exit to do some night fishing in their dugouts, most of which are outfitted with little crabclaw sails. They said hello and perused my vessel which has a similar, though much larger sail and unlike the dugouts can work to windward by virtue of its flat leeward side. Desesperado can easily outsail anything around here but the indians seem uninterested in building better craft, or even in sailing upwind though they spend many tedious hours paddling. Amazingly, all the Rama I met spoke English (as well as Rama and Spanish)! As with the Miskito farther north, the British had a big influence around here. They invited me to their village on the next Cay but there was no wind now; I have to admit that to some extent this was an excuse: I could have made it to Rama Cay by paddle (though not in daylight) but frankly I was so worn by being the center of many, many groups of Indian, Garifuna and Latin spectators along the Honduran and Nicaraguan coasts that I just wanted to be left alone for a while. Once the Rama had all departed I was at last alone to enjoy a beautiful sunset and after dark things continued to go well because I had by some fluke managed to properly adjust the tarp (which is about an inch too short and therefore very finicky) and this turned out to be one of the rare nights that my bed stayed dry through the inevitable downpours.

Morning, and I sailed across the lagoon with another excellent Rama fleet towards the exit to the sea, weaving under a gorgeous sunrise between friendly men and (unusually) some women raising nets and crab traps into their dugouts. One almost never sees women working in boats in Central America – they go only as passengers. The men showed me the long sticks they carry aboard, into the end of which they insert a detachable barbed metal spearhead for hunting turtles. Once thrust through the turtle’s shell this barbed head, which is tied to a long length of line, detaches from the stick and the creature may then be played on the line until exhausted. “We get sharks this way too” they told me. The Rama were as easy to like as the Miskito, but I left them in the estuary and dithered slowly out to sea over a sandbar not too afflicted with surf this calm morning. Too calm: it took a long time to go nowhere this morning, in fact by early afternoon I had only made about five sun-roasted miles along the coast. I was trying to stay far offshore to minimise my presence in an area notorious for piracy and violence but could not make much progress out to sea. I realized I had one great advantage – my crabclaw sail would look from a distance like the sail of any of the cayucos from the lagoon (which do sometimes venture out to sea on such calm days) and therefore I would appear from a distance as a poor target for the bad guys.

I passed numerous small islands, none of which offered me any kind of sheltered anchorage. I really wanted to stay clear of the mainland if I could, after all the stories I had been told it felt just plain scary. It was late in the afternoon when I rounded Monkey Point, threaded some more small islands, and very nearly put into a mainland cove for the night. But it felt wrong, I didn’t like it for no reason that I could explain. Despite the shelter available there I carried on past Monkey Point.

Here in Bocas del Toro, Panama where I sit writing this I met Alphonso. He’s Argentine or Spanish and came down the Nicaraguan coast in his tiny sailing boat no longer than mine (though it has a cabin and motor) only because he is an inexperienced sailor and feared making long open-ocean crossings. Anyone with experience would take on the open ocean rather than the Nicaraguan coast in a heartbeat. It is the land that kills boats. Well, Alphonso put in at Monkey Point one evening. Soon a panga (a lancha , fiberglass launch powered by an outboard) appeared carrying two armed men and a woman. They circled Alphonso waving their guns and would have boarded but the woman aboard became hysterical crying that she did not want to be a part of this. The men relented, saying to her in Spanish (they took Alphonso for a gringo who didn’t understand them)  that they would put her ashore and then return ¨to fuck this gringo.¨  As soon as they left Alphonso fired up his engine and burned out to sea, then cut it dead and drifted in the gathering dark, still close enough to hear the men circling and cursing their inability to find the gringo. A lucky escape for Alphonso.

A couple of days before Alphonso had put in at Puerto Cabezas as I had, and had the same trouble with immigration and the awful “harbor” as myself. Three men came along the pier and threatened him with machetes, but Alphonso has been robbed so many times before that he had prepared a bundle of paper wrapped in a few small bills and a plastic bag which looked like a lot of money, and he gave this to the men.  He also gave them two full gasoline cans, but they were full of rainwater he’d been saving for washing clothes! At that moment the military came along the pier bearing Alphonso’s passport which they’d taken earlier so the men scrammed, clearly planning to return. As soon as he had his passport Alphonso cast off and headed out to sea.

I think I got off lightly in Nicaragua. I will never return to that coast. Maybe the other side of the country is better.

I made it ten or fifteen more miles to the mouth of the Rio Punta Gorda and passed over the sandbar to enter the mouth without incident. It was a strikingly beautiful place, green hills and jungle, a wide river, no significant habitation, a military post with unfriendly soldiers who took my documents and radioed back to Bluefields. Nicaragua seems quite intensely paranoid. I was cleared, and sailed back to midriver (to avoid the worst of the sandflies) where I anchored, slept well and was off and being mangled by the waves on the sandbar early in the morning. Where the outflowing river meets the incoming swell over the shallow sandbar things get pretty interesting but I can get through this crazed spiky surf well enough as long as I have enough wind to maintain steerage perpendicular to the waves. But this morning there was little wind so I got turned side-on to the waves which crashed over the boat in droves and gave us a thorough cleansing. Desesperado takes these beatings well and I have become rather phlegmatic about them myself during the actual events. Drifting downriver towards these maelstroms is a different matter – I pretty much chew my nails down to the roots.

I think it was only thirty or forty miles to San Juan de Nicaragua, the last town before Costa Rica. I ploughed along weaving through the usual vast amounts of driftwood washed out of the rain-swollen rivers into a sea which varied between grey and green and brown as it had for hundreds of miles.  Areas of differing current would be separated by “trash lines,” bands of driftwood and garbage twenty feet wide. I’d have to slow down and push through. Often the sea on each side of these lines would contrast in color so sharply that the transition between one world and the next would be jarring, like putting on a pair of heavily tinted glasses. I had little information, only a road map, the base landmap in the new GPS, and an ancient chart of the coast of such large scale it showed three whole countries. As I approached the area near the point where I thought the town of San Juan should be I saw nothing, and the wind rose to a fierce blast and clocked around into my face to force me to beat into it. Big surf was pounding the coast making a landing dodgy at best. Here I was once again beating towards an uncertain landfall and running out of time –  soon the sun would set. I hate these moments – they are not just moments: because boats move so slowly situations like this go on for hours. I already have enough of an anxiety disorder, I get awful headaches from the strain of trying to decide tactics, of fearing the weather, the surf, the night, the bad guys, of dealing with such massively important uncertainty, for such long periods of time. This was worse than usual. I could see no port, no town, no landing, and the sea was really getting unpleasant. The only thing was a naval vessel anchored far out guarding the border with Costa Rica only just around the next point. I figured I would have to beat out to them and ask where the hell the town was, when a black dot behind me resolved into a panga.  Hooray, maybe. A panga at sea around here can help one or kill one. Too many tales of violent piracy, such as the one from a likeable young dude on the dock at Bluefields who earlier this year was out lobstering in his panga on the offshore reefs. In the night he was woken by BANG BANG BANG! and rose to find his friend, who had been on watch, shot dead. The pirates boarded from their own panga and took his GPS and the iced lobsters and conch from the cooler.

Two rather brutish-looking men were aboard the boat approaching me now, and three small children. I figured even the worst of the worst would not hack a gringo to bits in front of their kids so I was reassured. They were all clearly astonished at my presence, I get this a lot; I in turn endeavored to appear unruffled by my situation and not a fellow to be trifled with. We shouted over the wind; they said I might make it to the Rio Colorado and enter it but it was seven more miles and there was nothing there. Nearer, at invisible San Juan de Nicaragua where they were going, there was beer. That settled that.  I would follow them into some kind of entrance ahead. We pressed on towards the blank, sandy, surf-beseiged coast. It made me nervous as hell to look at the scene. Big brown surf, left, right, and dead ahead. We lumped towards the land.

Oh my. The worst sandbar yet. I could not see the entrance, only wild surf, but judging by the muddiness of the water there had to be one. The panga went first, using their powerful outboard to fly diagonally along the trough between breakers which rose high and muddy to my left then crashed down to my right. Desesperado can handle some pretty nasty surf but I have to be able to run it perpendicular to the waves – any other way and a wave will knock me wildly off course and the next breaker will then hit me broadside with an impact that has to be experienced to be believed. Here there was no way to go in but diagonally  – if I went in perpendicular I would just hit the beach and not enter the river. If I did not go in I must stay out all night in a dark and mean sea. So in I went. A huge wave reared up and I thought “This is it, the end of the trip” but it crested below then broke only a yard or two past me. My heart hammered crazily as I dropped into the trough behind, then I was hit by one, two, three big breakers which crashed over the outrigger and smashed it below spinning me about and nearly chucking me overboard, but in the next trough I got things back under control and now with a little speed up started to surf diagonally along the next wave. I was unable to head directly towards where the guys were waving, they having dropped off the kids and heroically come back out to guide me; I had to veer closer to land and at one point bumped over a shoal.  Wow!  It was madness, but Desesperado came through it brilliantly and I was so high on adrenaline by the time I reached smooth river that I was singing, which probably made me look like a madmen but I do not mind arriving at a place with this kind of image. Certainly the guys in the panga thought it was all pretty cool. I can’t describe the feeling of making it through a mess like this and entering calm protected water. Euphoric certainly.

A calm but fast-flowing river, truly gorgeous, running between the land and a raised spit of forested dune which ran along the sea’s edge and completely obscured the town from the ocean. Well-tended dwellings, palms, lush greenery and fields, a few docks. I cruised upriver until Justo smiled at me from his house on pilings half over the water and I shunted in to ask him if I could moor there. Certainly, he said. Mind the crocodile at night though, it comes past sometimes and is very, very big.

This fine place was founded in 1538. For the first time I started to like Nicaragua.  Some kind of fair was in progress on the green by the river: young girls dancing in cowboy hats on a stage, a lot of small makeshift noisy bars, some good-natured drunkenness. I got a sort of rice-and-bean stuffed empanada to eat and was in a good mood indeed but made the mistake of paying a courtesy visit to the immigration office. Carlos the official was unhappy to see me. My exit stamp, banged on in Puerto Cabezas, was now a week old which meant, oh so reluctantly, he had to fine me. No. I refused to pay. They’d told me in Cabezas that it was perfectly legal to return to ports down the coast even after being stamped out, especially in case of maritime emergencies and I was declaring such an emergency.  Carlos did have a point though, returning to land after being stamped out a week previously was pushing it a bit. I just didn’t like the sweaty bastard and wasn’t going to make it easy for him. He had to call Managua and to my amazement Managua backed me up! I was legal! Time for a beer.

Back at the fair people more or less ignored me but were not actively unfriendly. Those few I did talk to said that the town had changed since 600 military personnel had been garrisoned there recently, they didn’t like the military presence much. They were aware that Nicaragua has a friendliness problem, they told me so. Carlos had ordered me to report to these military folks, so I went down to the base but nobody could be found to deal with me so I promised to return the next day.

I never saw the crocodile. The next morning I was admitted to the military base and chatted with the soldiers whilst waiting to be dealt with – the lower ranks were well-intended enough but seemed wary of their superiors when interacting with me, for the officers were not friendly at all. They put me in a panga with a grim lieutenant assigned to inspect my boat. It was all very serious. They threatened to prohibit my departure, my presence and vessel were all too irregular, there wasn’t even a motor. Fortunately I had a certificate of maritime safety for the boat procured by great good luck upon registration in Mexico (nobody had even looked at my boat there) and they could not argue with this and didn’t want me around anyway. Ok, you can go. But go see the Port Captain for final clearance.

But what’s this? says the Port captain, Your zarpe is a week old, you cannot leave with an old zarpe. You must buy a new zarpe. No, I would not. Talk to the Port Captain in Cabezas, he issued the old one and said it was good. I have paid all I am going to pay to the government of Nicaragua for a mere few days in your unfriendly country.  Port Captain called his superiors and again to my astonishment they backed me up. I was free. I got back to the boat and cast off before they changed their minds.

It was now midday.  Down the river and around the bend to the sea. The sandbar had not gotten wild with the afternoon winds yet so we only got a mild battering in 5-foot waves on the way out, then it was a long beat out to the point and around and YAY! I was out of Nicaragua and into Costa Rica!

I passed the Rio Colorado. Outide I saw something weird sticking out of the water. It looked alive. I approached. It was a pair of big turtles mating! One atop the other, gyrating around and around, gasping heavily, they did not submerge immediately as turtles almost always do when approached. I watched for a while, it was pretty hot stuff. They finally submerged reluctantly and I felt guilty. I saw nine more pairs of mating turtles in the next 17 miles  of increasingly blue water to Rio Tortuguero. I had not seen much blue water at all in weeks. My first Costa Ricans appeared along the way, speeding out in a small skiff, goggling at me and smiling. “You came from Mexico?” The whole feeling of threat I’d experienced in Nicaragua evaporated. “They are rich down there in Costa Rica” some Nicaraguan had told me “and things are much better.” And so it was. These two friendly guys must have been out fishing but all they had in the boat was thin rope and long sticks. They zoomed away after a little while.

I planned to enter the river and visit the town of Tortuguero in this area famed for turtles. There were indeed plenty of turtles, big ones. Three miles short of the sandbar I met a panga bearing five men who were friendly and amazed at my vessel. They said I was on a good bearing to cross the bar but  it was “muy brava”, not good news. For most of my trip I have been very fortunate in that offshore shoals have attenuated the big swells and caused the surf to be mostly quite manageable, but now the sea was deep all the way to the shore and the waves rear up to scary heights before breaking thunderously. It is terrifying. Not only could my boat be destroyed but it is purely a matter of chance whether or not I myself might escape unharmed from a sailboat tumbling in the foam. So I was in some doubt about whether or not I could land in Costa Rica at all.

Suddenly the men in the panga ceased conversation and took up long sticks. They shot off in the direction of a pair of mating turtles only a hundred meters distant. I fumbled in Cargo Bay Three for my camera but was too late. The men roared up on the turtles and hurled their harpoons into the poor creatures. One struck home and as I caught up and sailed close I could see the line snaking rapidly from the big coil on deck. I asked “Is this turtle hunting season?” and the men were silent until one said “Yes,” but I think it was a lie. I carried on. I did not want to see the rest. It is low enough to hunt these creatures but to do so whilst they are mating seems quite despicable. I might add that all of the men aboard the panga were well fed to the point of obesity.

Now I was only two miles from the river at Tortuguero. A squall appeared, the wind clocked into my teeth. For two frustrating hours I worked against a wind that seemed to have a personal vendetta against me. I could not make it to the bar, and eventually the wind was coming directly from the land so that even if I reached the bar I would have to tack against the wind and would certainly get destroyed. The only way to run a really bad surf is to have enough wind to be able to keep up with the waves – in fact if one can go very fast one can stay between the waves and never be touched by them at all. It was getting dark. Reluctantly I turned and headed on southeast along the coast in the dusk. I was in for my first all-nighter.

I have anchored offshore for the night before and tried to sleep, and might have tried that here had I 1000 feet of anchor rode. Now all I could do was to carry on sailing despite the fatigue of already having steered for 7 hours which was wearing heavily on me. I put on my wetsuit, got out my flashlight and ate some stale soda crackers which are my staple diet.

It turned out to be a lovely night, partly cloudy and moonless but with a gorgeous display of stars. I steered by the Southern Cross until it rotated out of view. A great trail of phosphorescence poured off the hull, the outrigger and the rudder. I was a good ten miles offshore and the few lights on the coast passed slowly. Even this far out I saw a bat and some fireflies. The wind blew steadily and without vindictiveness and I had a pretty easy time of it. In the small hours I reached the port of Limon, which as Costa Rica’s only Atlantic seaport was ludicrously busy even at this time of night. Huge cargo ships moved about, confusing lights were everywhere. It was extremely difficult to tell what the hell was going on.  Some kind of big patrol vessel was going around and around in a circle a mile across so twice I came within a hundred meters of it but it did not spot me. I kept my flashlight off despite the unnerving proximity and speed of the ships. I was in Costa Rican waters and getting the idea that there was no point in entering the country legally – to what end? Most of the coast was inaccessible to me due to the surf. Likely I’d just get charged a lot of money for nada. So I kept my light off and hoped to avoid all contact with the authorities.

I don’t know how I got through that insanity of moving ships at Limon. It was worse than a sandbar for adrenaline. No sooner than I’d slipped behind one of the monsters then another would be bearing down on me from somewhere else, festooned with indecipherable lights and belting along at fantastic speed. I have no radar reflector and there is almost no metal aboard Desesperado. I was still dodging these things as it grew light, fortunately I had enough wind to make some speed. At last I was out of the lanes and the sun rose red over the eastern horizon and I could stop for a bit and eat some more crackers as a school of bonito leaped around me eating their own breakfast of tiny fishes.

But now the wind died. The sea became glassy. Until two in the afternooon I drifted under strong sun in a state of unbearable heat, trying to hide under a portion of the sail which I had dropped since it was doing no good. If I tried to sail in what few puffs there were I would doze off immediately, but with the sail down and nothing to do I could not sleep a much-needed wink.  I drifted near mating turtles and enjoyed their gasping. In the afternoon I made some progress, and by dusk I was in Panamanian waters but still 14 miles short of Isla Colon and moving slowly.

I did not relish the thought of another sleepless night at sea. On the south side of Isla Colon lies the town of Bocas del Toro and I have a friend there, Captain Ray Jason of Aventura, but I had no decent chart, only the very basic land map on my new GPS. To enter the channel between Isla Colon and Isla Bastimentos in the dark with such scanty information would be the height of foolishness yet it was that or drift about all night with no information about the upcoming weather. So I crept in, mile after pitch-dark mile, always listening for surf or waves breaking against rocks. I could hear surf to my left, surf to my right, but none ahead, so I kept going, not liking it much, ready to shunt and backtrack at a moment´s notice. There was no sign of the light on the northwest corner of Isla Bastimentos described on my terrible ancient large-scale chart of the coast. A line of light which must be Bocas del Toro slowly hove into view but there was no way to tell if there were rocks or a reef or a breakwater between myself and them. It was all very confusing and scary. I appealed continuously for help on my VHF with no response. The swell beneath me began to rise and fall sharply, indicating shoaling. At last I saw a light nearby – a boat! I shone my flashlight and yelled and they immediately fired up their outboard and shot away. Well thanks a bunch. Drug smugglers probably, I was told later, I don’t buy it but have no better explanation. I crept on. I encountered another boat, or maybe the same one for it also ran away.  My rudder touched something but maybe it was driftwood. I was tired of squinting, crouching, straining my ears, metabolizing adrenaline, staying awake.

At last, my flashlight picked out something, a bunch of white pilings near a shore. I heard later that this is the remains of a hotel that the owners left unattended for a couple of years and the locals stole the entire building piece by piece leaving only the pilings! I shunted over, dropped anchor, set up my hovel and fell gratefully asleep. I had come 130 nautical miles in 35 hours.

In the morning it became clear that I had by great good luck barely missed a coral shoal beside the island of Carenero which does not exist on the GPS basemap, it is marked as open sea. Columbus careened his ships here I am told. It costs double to check in on a Sunday so I spent the day sailing around the area. On Monday I pulled up on a tiny bit of sand next to the Port Captain’s office to check in. People came out of the office, had a good laugh at my boat, then went back in to get more people who came out and laughed too. They checked me in and relieved me of $183 but were very friendly and offered me every assistance. Panama is a huge breath of sweet fresh air after the horrors of Nicaragua´s Atlantic coast. It is cheap and friendly and not in the least threatening. The Bocas area is an archipelago of small hilly islands and mangrove cays, coral reefs, sandy beaches with big surf, palm trees and bananas. The inhabitants are Latins and Afro-Caribbeans and Ngobe indians paddling about in their dugouts. And of course ex-pats from the USA and many other countries whose presence has led to things like decent roads and municipal garbage cans. There are surfing schools and dive shops and one can get hummus here.  I get a few people pretending to be my friend then asking for cash but not too much, it is all pretty laid back. When some black guy whistles at me from his seated position on the other side of the road, trying to get me over so he can hustle me I say “I am not your dog.”  For some reason bananas are sold singly and never in a bunch so this is the wrong place to come to if you want a whole bunch of bananas. There is hardly any wind here, but booming thunderstorms abound at this time of year. The area is frustratingly fishless; apparently the indians net the river mouths and hoover up all the critters.

My foot keeps going trough my rotting plywood deck. I plan to fix it before moving on. I am so tired of my things below deck getting soaked, and of having to bail out the big hull all the time. In a night’s rain it can fill the hull to a depth of over a foot. I need a foul weather sail and a new shelter and there are many other small repairs to effect. I feel bogged down but must put up with it until I can make these repairs and modifications. The cruising community have been very kind especially Captain Ray, and Belgian Chris who motored over in his dinghy to offer me an entire unused yacht to live aboard and get out of the considerable rain. I am now comfortably ensconced aboard Evening Star, a 40-foot Islander. And Lenny from Windancer who solved my chart problem: there are now 1147 digitized charts in my GPS. Yahoo!
I would be wise to end my journey here but likely I will go on at least to the San Blas Islands, maybe Columbia. I hear good things about both. I’ll let you know.