Fri 2 Jan 2004 20:05 Mexico/General
Position: 15° 45.154' N 96° 07.663' W -- Santa Cruz Bay, Huatulco; 2306.8 miles since Alameda, California

Today has been an electronics-oriented day. Last night, we were planning to leave tonight, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.; but as the day went on, it started looking as if the weather window was moving yet again. So, we've spent the day chatting with our two anchorage-mates on the VHF, analysing the weather and making plans. Since the two sailboats here (Cherie and us, since we checked out) are not officially in Mexico, we've kept the dinghies on deck and confined ourselves to our boats to (hopefully) avoid the attention of the port captain. Since there are currently gales out there, he shouldn't have any cause to complain about us sheltering here.

We've already gathered two sets of weatherfaxes today, using the shortwave and laptop; since Cherie doesn't have weatherfax, and New Venture missed it, we were able to share information with them about what the forecasts are saying. Cherie had a chat by shortwave with a weather expert in Oxnard, California, which we were able to listen in on (the famous Don of Summer Passage, a favourite of cruisers). We were meantime using our electronic charts to predict where we would be at various stages of the weather, and to plan a route which would put us in the worst spots in daylight.

So after all that, the upshot is that all three boats are planning to leave at about 4 a.m. local time tomorrow. New Venture will be steaming at about 6.5 knots, so they'll soon be ahead of the two sailboats, and hopefully they'll be able to send back weather information to us. Moonrise and Cherie will be closer together, and we've set up a radio schedule on the shortwave to keep in touch. Our best route has been plotted and set into the GPS.

The weather we're expecting is windy at first -- up to 25 knots, which isn't bad at all -- with possibly nasty waves left over from the gales; but wind and waves diminishing quite rapidly. We're heading up along the beach, so the waves shouldn't be in that far; hopefully, we'll have a nice sail. I hope so, since we don't have fuel to motor all the way to El Salvador. We just baked bread and made a huge pot of chilli, so we're set up with food for the road. (The bread worked really well this time!).

The additional day's delay has one good side-effect: we aren't leaving on a Friday!

Sat 3 Jan 2004 04:49 Mexico/General
Position: 15° 45.139' N 96° 07.665' W -- Santa Cruz Bay, Huatulco; 2306.8 miles since Alameda, California

Lifted the anchor and motored out of Santa Cruz Bay. Cherie was out just ahead of us; New Venture still dark.

Sunrise on the way out of Huatulco
Sat 3 Jan 2004 06:18 Mexico/General
Position: 15° 42.739' N 96° 03.329' W; 2312.3 miles since Alameda, California

Under way from Huatulco! We got the anchor up and got under way an hour and a half ago, 5 a.m. local time.

So far, it's pretty calm, with a light breeze. Cherie, with the South Africans on board, is just ahead of us, and the mountains are passing by on our left. The sky is just turning peachy in the east.

As we were raising the anchor, we looked south, and there was the Southern Cross hanging in the sky, pointing out way out of the harbour -- the first time I've seen it. If that's not a good omen, I don't know what is!

Sat 3 Jan 2004 23:24 Mexico/General
Position: 16° 10.559' N 95° 01.936' W -- The Gulf of Tehuantepec; 2383.0 miles since Alameda, California

Out in the Tehuantepec at last! We found some wind -- actually quite a lot -- and some rough seas, but right now we're sailing along beautifully on flat water, with a warm, surprisingly fragrant breeze blowing from the desert. The stars are out, and the beach is just a couple of hundred yards away to port as we sail east.

Morro Ayutla

As we left Huatulco bay this morning, with the Southern Cross showing us the way, the weather was calm and clear; in fact, we motored for lack of wind, although we did manage to sail a little under mainsail and genoa. Once around the corner, though, we found an uncomfortable, short, choppy swell left over from the big winds.

Cherie, the British sailboat with a South African crew, and New Venture, the converted trawler, were with us, which was very handy, as we were able to compare notes on conditions. Cherie tried sailing farther out than us, and of course New Venture was soon well ahead, so we spent the day trading information about conditions in different locations.

The Walker log in use

One issue in the Tehuantepec is the current, which can be quite strong, and can switch direction. So, we started using our old-fashioned Walker knot log, which measures our distance traveled through the water by trailing a spinning impeller attached to a meter in the cockpit. By comparing it with the GPS, which measures distance over the ground, we were able to calculate the current, and pass it on to the other boats. The current was originally favourable, at 1.5 knots (that's a lot), but later diminished.

We motored for quite a while; but once around Punta Chipehua, in the western Tehuantepec, the wind suddenly came on, very strongly -- 25 knots or so. (Not so strong for a San Francisco old-timer.) The problem was, it was dead ahead as we motored close to the beach. To sail, we would have had to tack either left -- onto the sand -- or right, into the middle of the gulf, which was exactly what we were trying to avoid -- that's where the big waves would be. Rather than endure a huge tacking marathon in the nasty chop, we kept on motoring past Salina Cruz -- frustrating as it was to be motoring in a strong wind!

Punta Chipehua

Our day's run up the coast was beautiful, apart from the rough ride; spectacular mountains unfolded and drifted by to port all day long, and the wind was warm and desert-scented. As the sun set, its afterglow silhouetted the peaks behind in deep orange- pink.

By that time, we were approaching Salina Cruz, the northwest corner of the gulf and one of the windiest points. Cherie's crew were getting tired, and decided to anchor for the night, even given that the anchorage was exposed to the strong wind; but we decided to keep on going. (New Venture by now was miles ahead.) As we turned right to pass the town -- which has a busy oil terminal -- and run along the north coast of the gulf, we saw a line of lights ahead, like scattered buildings on shore. Finally, we figured out that this was a fleet of shrimping boats, fishing right on our course! After a couple of false starts, we got around the outside of them and on our way.

The next section was the windiest -- crossing Bahia Ventosa -- windy bay. The bay lived up to its name, and was the windiest section so far, but motoring in flat seas due to our proximity to land, it wasn't any trouble. Ugly, though -- where "trees" are marked on the chart, there's now a huge oil refinery.

Now we're into the main part of the gulf, but probably past the worst of the wind, which is due to be diminishing by now. We're running close to the beach for shelter, and it's working great. We are 79.1 miles out of Huatulco, and have 467 miles to go to El Salvador.

Sun 4 Jan 2004 19:47 Mexico/General
Position: 15° 41.159' N 94° 02.811' W; 2450.9 miles since Alameda, California

We're past the worst of the Tehuantepec now, having made moderate progress during the night; the biggest help was the steady decline in the wind as the calm weather window settled in. It's just as well we came when we did, though; the next system of gales is already on its way. But they'll be well behind us when they get here.

We sailed through the night, in winds which rapidly became pretty light; by morning we were motoring. Given the light wind, we abandoned the hug-the-beach strategy and cut southeast across the gulf, which shortened the journey a little. Cherie is coming up behind us.

Now we're sailing again, and the good news is that we're making 5 knots through the water. The bad news is that the water is moving the other way at 2 knots; so we're only making 3 towards our destination. But at least we're making our way down the east side of the gulf; we're now 146 miles out of Huatulco, and 391 from Barillas marina in El Salvador, 18 miles off La Puerta in the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Ahead is Puerto Madero, the last port in Mexico, and beyond that Guatemala and El Salvador.

Mon 5 Jan 2004 19:03 Mexico/General
Position: 15° 07.633' N 93° 15.994' W; 2511.7 miles since Alameda, California

The stormy Gulf of Tehuantepec isn't living up to its reputation (although we're really past the dangerous part now). The weather here has been calm, mostly windless, and hot and sunny all day. In fact we haven't seen any real clouds for a long time now -- this, I think, is due to our position relative to the permanent weather systems around these latitudes.

It's generally about 86 Fahrenheit during the day, and clear, with light winds -- due to those same weather systems. This makes for very relaxed living on board, but not much progress. There is, however, plenty to do -- in fact, it sometimes seems like there's hardly time to read a book. Fill in the hourly log entry, then adjust the sails, check the course, adjust some more, attend to some rattling item or other, check the horizon for ships, and so on; and the next thing you know, it's time for the next hourly log entry.

Taking photos of wildlife usually fits in there somewhere, but since we left Huatulco, there's been surprisingly little wildlife -- no dolphins, and hardly any birds. Even next to no turtles, which was surprising, since when we went into Huatulco there were loads of turtles.

Ian swimming after the turtles

That all changed today, though. This morning before dawn, I started seeing green flashes in the water again, the first since Huatulco. Still have no idea what they are. Then around 10 this morning, we suddenly started seeing turtles -- large sea turtles -- and before long, they were no more than 30 or 40 yards apart, all over the sea. We got a whole series of amazing pictures of some just a foot or so away from the boat. At noon, we stopped for a while and I went in for a swim -- I managed to get fairly close to one before he dove deeper than I could go. Coming back to the boat, I saw a magnificent jellyfish; about a foot long, with ribs running down its side, with lines of pulsing light running down the ribs.

Turtle swimming off

Finally, this evening, Rachel saw some dolphins leaping way out of the water. For some reason, they would only do it when I wasn't looking. Still, it sounded cool.

So, after some sporadic sailing attempts, we're back to motoring. The head current against us seems to be abating, at last, so we're making a little more progress. There's a nearly-full moon up, so the nights are well lit; always a nice thing on night watch, though the stargazing isn't so good. We're now 203 miles out of Huatulco, 338 miles from our destination, and 18 miles offshore, west of Zacapulco.

We've been keeping up a twice daily radio schedule with Cherie, the other sailboat heading south. Though they anchored for a night at Salina Cruz while we sailed on, by the time they set off the next morning it was calm enough for them to shortcut across the gulf. Add to this that they've been motoring more than us, and they've nearly caught us! It'll be nice to actually see them again.

Wed 7 Jan 2004 00:56 America/Guatemala
Position: 13° 58.324' N 91° 47.880' W; 2622.9 miles since Alameda, California

Crossed into Guatemalan waters.

Wed 7 Jan 2004 05:14 America/Guatemala
Position: 13° 50.533' N 91° 36.654' W; 2636.4 miles since Alameda, California

A couple of milestones today -- we're out of the Tehuantepec, and we're out of Mexico! We spent last night motoring through calms, passing loads of trawlers as we went, and at 12:56, we crossed the border into Guatemalan waters. We had passed 2,096 miles of the Mexican coast over one month. We're now sailing -- yes, we have some wind for a change -- 13 miles offshore, approaching San Jose, Guatemala. We're 328 miles out of Huatulco, and 196 from Barillas, El Salvador.

We caught our first fish today! We started trailing a cheapo, plastic lure that was given to us by some guys on "Gunslinger", in San Diego; it was made by sailor, from "Orient Star". Within an hour we had a fish hooked! We got it on board, and it was about 5 pounds or so, but it turned out to be a skipjack tuna, which isn't very good eating -- so back in it went. Next time we're aiming for Dorado.

One other small milestone -- our email programme lists all of the radio stations we can connect to in distance order. In San Diego, the nearest was San Luis Obispo, in central California; but as we moved east, it quickly switched to Corpus Christi, Texas. Now, for the first time, the nearest station to Moonrise is Panama!

Wed 7 Jan 2004 19:40 America/Guatemala
Position: 13° 36.825' N 91° 00.360' W; 2674.6 miles since Alameda, California

Another slow progress day, in light winds. We stopped motoring early in the morning, since fuel is getting low, and we need some in reserve to motor up the river into Barillas in El Salvador. We got quite a good breeze this afternoon, which helped, but it's died out again now, and we've got a nasty sharp swell which is making the boat roll pretty wildly. Still, the wind may fill in again later on as the land cools.

There's been next to no wildlife for ages; just the odd bird. So we're pretty much surrounded by empty water -- except for this morning, when we happened to sail within 50 yards of a couple of guys in a small open boat tending some fishing nets!

The good news progress-wise is that we're now well over half-way across Guatemala. It makes you realise how big Mexico is when the other countries are all so much smaller. We're 366 miles out of Huatulco, and 159 from Barillas, 17 miles offshore near Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. With a little wind, we should be in Barillas in a few days.

In case you're wondering, Barillas is a little west of the Gulf of Fonseca (which is on the El Salvador / Honduras border); it's on a bay called Bahia de Jiquilisco, and it's at 13 degrees 16 minutes north, 88 degrees 29 minutes west. It's actually quite far up a river, which apparently is navigable; we've already got a list of GPS co-ordinates to follow, and apparently they send a guide out to meet you too.

Thu 8 Jan 2004 00:40 America/El_Salvador
Position: 13° 35.438' N 90° 52.572' W; 2682.4 miles since Alameda, California

Crossed into El Salvadorean waters.

Thu 8 Jan 2004 19:13 America/El_Salvador
Position: 13° 16.252' N 89° 50.406' W; 2751.7 miles since Alameda, California

We just watched the moon rise over the mountains of El Salvador -- a beautiful sight. We crossed into El Salvador waters at 12:40 p.m., making our third country since leaving San Diego. We're now 445 miles sailing from Huatulco, and 87 miles from Barillas; we're 16 miles south of Punta Remedios in El Salvador.

The wind did indeed fill in last night. At 10 to midnight, a light breeze came up, so Rachel (who was on watch) set the genoa. At half past the wind was enough for the mainsail (being heavier, it needs more wind to set without flapping noisily in the rolls). I helped Rachel with this, and as we were getting it set up, I noticed a bright red light on the land, but quite high above sea level -- we guessed that it might be an airplane warning beacon. However, a while later it flared up brighter, and through the binoculars we could see streams of lava coming down from a bright flame at the top -- we finally figured out that this was Volcan Fuego, a major active volcano in Guatemala. The amazing thing was that it was 57 miles away, and still bright.

Volcan San Vicente, El Salvador

Pretty quickly the wind built further, so we set the working sails -- mainsail, staysail and jib. But within minutes we had a reef in the main as the wind kept building. By 4 a.m., I took the staysail down, then put the second reef in the main, and we were plunging dramatically into head-on, steep waves -- so the entire deck got drenched in saltwater. As did I -- fortunately, the water is really warm now!

By 5.30, the wind was easing off a little, so I shook out the second reef, but I couldn't seem to get the boat to sail right. Just then some dolphins came along and started playing just off to port. As I looked over, I noticed a white marker buoy, made out of an old fuel can -- the kind the local fishermen use -- following us through the water! It turned out that we had snagged a line, and were dragging an entire fishing rig, including who knows how much net, through the water. I tried to free it, but eventually had to cut it loose, and we were off again.

The wind gradually faded during the day, and now we're sailing under all working sail, but in light wind -- we're holding off on the genoa because of a forecast of another 20 knot blow tonight. So we've had our first full day without the engine since leaving Huatulco, during which we covered 64 miles (noon to noon) -- about half of a good sailing day, but we'll settle for it.

We're still in regular touch with Cherie, which is now 29 miles ahead, since they were carrying more fuel than us and hence motored more. We're out of VHF range, so we're using the shortwave to call them four times a day -- this is really cool, because we get reports on winds before they arrive (potentially three hours before), as well as reports on conditions closer in to shore.

We tried fishing again today. After one fish struck and got away, we hooked another; as I was getting the rod sorted out, we saw it jumping astern -- a huge sailfish, about 4 feet long, and jumping clear out of the water! Unfortunately the leader broke and it got away. Just as well -- I don't think I would have fancied hauling it aboard.

Now I am really exhausted, and off to bed -- until my watch at 2 a.m.

Fri 9 Jan 2004 19:47 America/El_Salvador
Position: 12° 58.519' N 88° 12.872' W; 2856.1 miles since Alameda, California

It's important to have plans when you're sailing -- so that you have something to change!

Yup, it's change-of-plans time. Cherie, our buddy-boat since Huatulco, is bypassing El Salvador and heading into Puesta del Sol, a new marina in Nicaragua. It's only about 75 miles farther down the coast, but it has the advantage of being close to the Gulf of Papagayo, the next place where we might hit gales; so it's a better jumping-off point to wait for a weather window.

We've therefore decided to follow suit, for a bunch of reasons. The new marina is supposed to be pretty good -- it's too new to be on our guide books, but we have a stack of Latitude 38's (the San Francisco bay sailing magazine) that we're taking down for the benefit of cruisers down south, and there were some articles in there about it. It's run by a guy from San Diego (USA), and the facilities are supposed to be pretty good -- much better than you'd expect in Mexico, for example.

Plus we'd like to meet the folks from Cherie. Although we've spoken to them by radio a lot, we've never actually met, since by the time they pulled into Huatulco both they and ourselves had stowed the dinghies, to avoid hassle from the port captain (they never checked in, and our check-in had expired).

So, at the last minute -- we were actually at the waypoint where you're supposed to radio Barillas for a guide -- we changed course to the southeast. Right now, we're 18 miles from the entrance to Barillas, about to pass across the Gulf of Fonseca, which will put us off the Nicaraguan coast. We're 550 miles out of Huatulco, and 55 from Puesta del Sol -- hopefully we'll get there tomorrow.

It's a shame to miss El Salvador -- we've been watching the coastline today, and it's fascinating, basically one long succession of volcanoes -- but Nicaragua looks interesting too. The country seems to be in an upswing, and they are obviously making an effort to welcome tourists -- the marina was opened by the president, and is the first facility on the west coast for cruisers. Puesta del Sol is on the coast about 10 miles north of Corinto.

So that's where we're heading, probably for a reasonably short stop to re-fuel and re-supply. It would be nice to stop and do some touristy things, but the overall plan is still to head south fairly fast; we'd both like to get the canal under our belts before relaxing. Plus the big cruising areas we'd like to visit are in the Caribbean; and we get a second chance to visit central America from there. But we may stop in Costa Rica or northern Panama.

We had strong winds again last night, and actually logged an entire day (noon to noon) without use of the motor -- the first since Huatulco. We sailed at over 7 knots for at least an hour. Unfortunately, the motor is on again now, although winds are forecast for later.

I've just noticed that I've logged over 4,000 miles on Moonrise, including all the sailing around SF.

Sat 10 Jan 2004 08:45 America/El_Salvador
Position: 12° 37.508' N 87° 20.533' W -- Puesta del Sol marina, Nicaragua; 2913.5 miles since Alameda, California

Docked at Puesta del Sol marina, and pretty soon decided to leave again!

Sat 10 Jan 2004 10:35 America/El_Salvador
Position: 12° 37.349' N 87° 20.516' W -- Puesta del Sol marina, Nicaragua; 2913.6 miles since Alameda, California

Under way from Puesta del Sol marina.

Sat 10 Jan 2004 20:13 America/El_Salvador
Position: 12° 17.398' N 87° 05.199' W; 2942.3 miles since Alameda, California

We're currently drifting off Corinto, Nicaragua, waiting for the wind so we can sail south to Costa Rica. What was that I said about plans again?

Volcan Viejo at dawn

We had a night of fantastic sailing last night, on our way to the Puesta del Sol marina. We put the sails up at 1 a.m., and by 2.30 we were making over 5 knots. By sunrise, that was up to 7 knots, and the sun rose behind Volcan Viejo, a huge, conical volcano, which was spouting out puffs and clouds of smoke.

That was a dramatic welcome to Nicaragua, and the next stage was even more interesting. By 7.00 a.m. we were approaching the entrance to the river where the marina was located. Our friends on Cherie were a few miles ahead, and so were able to call back useful tips to us as we were approaching. The river entrance was turbulent, with fresh water pouring out into the sea against the wind, but not too bad. The channel was very clearly marked by pairs of buoys at all strategic points, which was just as well, because there were many reefs and shoals outside the channel. Still, motoring up the river was easy, given the marks, and quite an experience, negotiating a fairly narrow channel between mangroves on both sides.

Going up the river to the marina

The marina, unfortunately, was something of a disappointment. We had decided to go there on the strength of a glowing report in Latitude 38, written by cruisers who had (supposedly) just been there. They said that there was a pool, laundrette, fuel at the dock, and so on -- and this was published in March, ie. 10 months ago. When we got there this morning, the place wasn't even half finished: the toilets were barely usable -- the men's only -- with exposed wiring all over the place, the pool was under construction, and the laundrette was a myth. There was no fuel available, either. So it seems that the supposed cruisers' article was written by the marina itself, in anticipation of getting their work done a lot faster than they actually managed.

This was obviously a huge disappointment, specially as we had bypassed Barillas in El Salvador, which we know for a fact is a fantastic marina with excellent facilities. Not only that, but this place was proposing to charge us $12 per night for tying up to a wooden dock with no facilities! The upshot is that Cherie and ourselves decided to head straight back out again and continue down to Costa Rica. The nice folks on Cherie loaned us 8 gallons of fuel for the trip, which was a big help.

Unfortunately, the wind isn't being as helpful; we are, once again, totally becalmed, after having a reasonable few hours' sail earlier on. Hopefully we'll see some wind soon.

And yes, we are planning to sop and have some fun soon! Although we still want to get to the Caribbean fairly quickly, there are a few places down the Pacific coast we have our eyes on for some relaxation. We'll keep you posted.

Sun 11 Jan 2004 18:15 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 49.178' N 86° 32.265' W -- North of Masachapa, Nicaragua; 3000.8 miles since Alameda, California

Dropped the anchor off the beach north of Masachapa.

Sun 11 Jan 2004 19:55 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 49.175' N 86° 32.271' W -- North of Masachapa, Nicaragua; 3000.8 miles since Alameda, California

We always knew that the two big hurdles coming down the coast would be the Tehuantepec and the gulf of Papagayo, in the southern Nicaragua / northern Costa Rica area. We had planned to stop for a while before the Papagayo, but given our problems at marina Puesta del Sol, we decided to go for it. The good news is that we're making progress; although not too much.

At midnight this morning the wind came up, fairly light, but the forecast was for stiffer winds later, so we set our working sails reefed and sailed slowly south, waiting for the wind to come. However, it didn't arrive, so we ended up gradually increasing sail just to keep moving.

Volcan Momotombo

In the morning, Volcan Momotombo was off to port, and we were still drifting slowly south. Finally, we ended up motoring, after Cherie -- who was ahead of us -- reported stronger winds ahead. But within minutes, the wind arrived, and were were rapidly clawing down sail. We finally got down to the mainsail with two reefs, and the staysail with one, which we had never used before -- but it worked well.

By three in the afternoon, Cherie was reporting that the wind and waves ahead were too ugly to continue, and that they were turning back. So, we decided to backtrack a little and find a place for both boats to anchor; which we found on the north side of Masachapa, in a little partially-sheltered bay in front of a beach. We got anchored in the last of the daylight, at 6.15, and guided Cherie in after dark, about an hour later.

Tomorrow, the wind should be down, specially in the morning; so we're going to head for another anchorage further down the coast. By the time we get there, the winds should be calming down a lot for the last leg.

Mon 12 Jan 2004 06:03 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 48.572' N 86° 32.477' W -- North of Masachapa, Nicaragua; 3001.4 miles since Alameda, California

Upped anchor and got under way.

Mon 12 Jan 2004 12:46 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 49.133' N 86° 32.308' W -- North of Masachapa, Nicaragua; 3023.2 miles since Alameda, California

Dropped the anchor in the same spot off the beach north of Masachapa.

Mon 12 Jan 2004 18:14 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 49.132' N 86° 32.309' W -- North of Masachapa, Nicaragua; 3023.2 miles since Alameda, California

We raised the anchor at 6 o'clock this morning, after a deep -- but far too short -- sleep. Cherie got going just behind us. We passed over a package of sweets for Bevan, their little boy, as we moved out -- we happened to have plenty, and he's been on board since San Diego!

The anchorage worked well for the night, even though it's just a nearly-straight section of coastline. Masachapa to the south bulges out very slightly, so there's a slight hook to the coastline; that, plus the fact that the wind is firmly off the land, and the presence of some high ground inland, is enough to make it relatively sheltered. We would normally be very concerned about being near land in strong winds, but the good news here is that the wind is coming from the Caribbean, and therefore guaranteed to blow us out to sea -- and away from being smashed on the shore -- if our anchor drags. But the holding seemed firm enough that that wouldn't happen.

Shortening sail

So, as we left, we took care to set a GPS waypoint where we were anchored, just in case we needed to return; then we headed off down the coast. Our plan was to stay close inshore, and shelter from the wind under the land; and we expected the worst of the wind to be over.

As we sailed off in the sunrise, we could still see Volcan Viejo, smoking away off behind us. We also had huge flakes of ash -- 3-4 inches long -- falling down all around us, but these were from sugar-cane fires that are burning all around Nicaragua. I guess it's the time of year when they burn off the old sugar cane.

Unfortunately, once we got past Masachapa and its sheltering hills, we found the same conditions as yesterday -- strong, gusty winds, and big, nasty waves. We could almost certainly have sailed, even if under storm sails, except that the wind was coming from dead ahead. Apart from the fact that tacking into such nasty weather would have been hideously uncomfortable and painfully slow, we were constrained by trying to stay within a mile or so of the shore (but not too close), which didn't leave us much room to work with. Added to this, the wind kept rising and falling, so that any sail combination we set would be of no use just a minute or two later.

Our route past Masachapa and No-Name Anchorage.

So, with Cherie seeing the same problems, we both decided to turn back to our (relatively) cosy anchorage. As soon as we did, everything got much nicer -- just turning off the wind, and getting closer to the land, took us from howling chaos to relaxing in the cockpit with a book in 15 minutes!

After a brief, and hopeless, attempt at fishing for dinner, we got back to the same place off the beach, and anchored at 12:45. We then proceeded to spend the afternoon relaxing.

As for getting on to Costa Rica -- the next anchorage we're heading for is just 28 miles away, an easy half-day's sail under good conditions. The problem is that there's a big gap in the mountains between us and it, so that the Caribbean gales come howling through, being intensified by the funneling effect. This only seems to happen when a wave of low pressure passes through the Caribbean; so we've been keenly watching the weatherfaxes, where, sure enough, there is an old, dissipating cold front passing down the east coast of Central America. We had hoped that this would have got us past the worst of the gales already, but apparently not; so we'll be continuing to watch the weather maps and looking for a reprieve. Probably we'll spend tomorrow here, and then try to head out tomorrow night, or the next day.

In the meantime, we've sailed 22 miles since yesterday, just to end up back in the same place. We've spent some time reading up our Central America guides, and Costa Rica is starting to look nicer and nicer. The Cherie folks have spent lots of time there, and know all the little out-of-the-way places; great snorkeling holes and the like. Now, if we can just get past these gales...

Tue 13 Jan 2004 20:49 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 49.136' N 86° 32.314' W -- North of Masachapa, Nicaragua; 3023.2 miles since Alameda, California

We spent today looking at the weather maps, sending emails, and doing boat maintenance -- changing the engine oil and a fuel filter -- and thinking about when we can safely move on. We've been chatting back and forth all day between Cherie and Moonrise, looking at weatherfaxes, and discussing options.

Changing the oil, by the way, is a pretty tedious business. It would be nice if, like a car owner, we could put an oil pan under the sump and open the drain -- but the only thing under the sump is some fibreglass and the ocean! So we have to pump the old oil out with a pump with a narrow tube going in through the dipstick hole -- a very tedious and messy business.

Anyway -- it looks like our best option is to go tomorrow sometime -- from the afternoon onwards. This doesn't just get us out when the weather is supposed to be easing, but is the best time to reach each of the next 4 anchorages -- one in Nicaragua, and 3 in Costa Rica -- in case we need to put in at any point, given that this whole section of coast is vulnerable to strong Caribbean winds, due to the flat ground between two mountain ranges along the Costa Rica / Nicaragua border.

We will, of course, be studying weatherfaxes tomorrow, so everything still depends on the weather. So we'll see... but at least we should have time to go for a swim -- which includes scraping our collection of gooseneck barnacles off the hull.

Wed 14 Jan 2004 23:45 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 49.125' N 86° 32.394' W -- North of Masachapa, Nicaragua; 3023.3 miles since Alameda, California

Upped anchor.

Wed 14 Jan 2004 23:58 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 48.871' N 86° 32.699' W; 3023.7 miles since Alameda, California

Under way!

Dove on the boat today; the bottom is remarkably clean, given that we haven't cleaned it since the paint went on in March! The antifouling paint was Pettit Ultima SR, and is obviously pretty good. But I scraped a few gooseneck barnacles off from the waterline. Rachel made our Costa Rica flag today, too.

After watching the weather today, we finally decided that tonight would be a good time to leave; so we upped anchor at 11:40 pm. (20 minutes ago.) This puts us at our next anchorage in daylight.

So far, it's pretty calm out. We'll see...

Thu 15 Jan 2004 08:07 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 31.431' N 86° 10.938' W -- No-name anchorage, Nicaragua.; 3055.6 miles since Alameda, California

Anchored in no-name anchorage, which should be named no-shelter anchorage! The wind is howling here.

Thu 15 Jan 2004 18:27 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 31.434' N 86° 10.940' W -- No-name anchorage, Nicaragua.; 3055.6 miles since Alameda, California

Well, we got some wind today, all right! After passing Masachapa, the wind came on, and we raised the double-reefed main and staysail. However, the wind actually wasn't all that strong; and we didn't want to raise more sail because we thought it was going to get stronger farther south. So, we motorsailed, using the sails to help the engine, and headed south.

The wind grew stronger as we went, but remained inconsistent and not as strong as we expected. We still kept to the short sails, because we were worried about a sudden increase, but I think this was a mistake; we spent the entire night motoring, which we could have avoided. After all, when a gust hits, you just need to ease the sails to handle it temporarily. Oh well.

One high point was that we opened a tin of Folger's instant cappuccino that we brought from San Diego, and had a cup as we left. It was great! At least given that it's been over a month since the last Starbucks!

Wave being torn up by the wind, at the anchorage

In this fashion we got to No Name anchorage, where we're now anchored. This is a truly lousy anchorage! The wind really howls here, and when we arrived just after dawn the bay was full of pangas setting fishing nets. We managed to make our way through the nets and into the lee of a cliff, where we anchored, but the wind was still howling in the rigging. Cherie is anchored nearby, but given conditions, there's no talk of launching dinghies -- so all communication is by VHF. Strange that we know them so well, but we've only actually seen them for about half an hour at Puesta del Sol!

So after a day of much-needed rest we're getting ready for another night departure, to arrive at the next anchorage in daylight. With any luck, the weather forecasts will finally come true and the strong winds will be over, and we won't need to put in, but if we do, it's supposed to be a pretty sheltered one.

So hopefully we'll be underway again soon.

Fri 16 Jan 2004 17:30 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 31.303' N 86° 11.011' W -- No-name anchorage, Nicaragua.; 3055.8 miles since Alameda, California

Upped anchor.

Fri 16 Jan 2004 19:49 America/El_Salvador
Position: 11° 23.500' N 86° 05.742' W; 3065.9 miles since Alameda, California

Last night we cancelled our departure at the last moment -- we looked at the weather and decided that it was still a little too windy and gusty. So we spent last night sleeping, and today doing a little boat work, making some water, and using the radio to get yet more weather information.

By this evening, we'd decided -- in conjunction with Cherie -- that it was time to go, so at 5:30 pm. we upped anchor and headed out. We started off with a little sail up, and gradually increased it; with the sea surprisingly flat, we were soon sailing along beautifully under all plain sail, making almost 6 knots heeled over at a good angle.

The sky is clear, and there are millions of stars out; it's nice and cool, just 80 degrees; there are just few lights of villages on the Nicaraguan coast, and there's a nice glow of phosphorescence in the wake, with bright sparkles mixed in. We can only cross our fingers and hope this lasts til Costa Rica.

Cherie is well behind us now, since we seem to be outsailing her -- but Eugene has been a bit more conservative with his sails. He's just called to let us know he's getting his big sails out. So the race is on...

Sat 17 Jan 2004 16:05 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 35.451' N 85° 39.449' W -- Playa Panama, Bahia Culebra, Costa Rica; 3132.0 miles since Alameda, California

Dropped the anchor off Playa Panama.

Sat 17 Jan 2004 20:01 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 35.441' N 85° 39.459' W -- Playa Panama, Bahia Culebra, Costa Rica; 3132.0 miles since Alameda, California

We had a fantastic sail last night. Once we got going, the wind started increasing, so we shortened sail again, putting a reef in the main; we were concerned about a general wind increase, but we decided that this was a local increase caused by a well-known wind funnel around San Juan del Sur, which we were approaching. Sure enough, the wind didn't increase further, and after San Juan moderated again.

So we decided to turn away from the coast, and all the anchorages we'd lined up, and make straight for Cabo Santa Elena and the Gulf of Papagayo. This turn took us off the wind, and we had a beautiful sail with the wind coming over the port side; pretty soon we put the genoa up to replace the jib and staysail as the wind moderated further.

When the moon rose we were crossing the Gulf of Santa Elena, and we were closer to Costa Rica than Nicaragua. We could see lights of villages in Nicaragua astern, but just one solitary light on Costa Rica's Cabo Santa Elena ahead, which is a national park -- Costa Rica is noted for its conservation.

Murcielagos Islands at dawn

As we approached Cabo Santa Elena we were wary of a possible sudden wind change, as we were pretty close to the cape with its high mountains; however, the wind remained light, and we sailed into the Gulf of Papagayo past the Murcielagos (bat) islands as the sun rose.

Cherie was still with us all this time, somewhat behind after we started sailing, but still in regular touch by radio. However, getting to the cape just after us, in daylight, they were able to cut inside of the hazardous islands, and using this shortcut got into the lead!

Finally, the wind died, and we motored into Bahia Culebra, in the south-east corner of the Gulf of Papagayo, where we dropped the hook in front of a beach dotted with sunbathers. Cherie and ourselves are the only cruising boats in here, so we have a measure of solitude, even though the beaches are crowded. On Monday, we have to go and check in at the Port Captain's office in Playa del Cocos, two bays to the west, but meantime we're going to get some well-earned rest.

So it looks like we caught the ideal weather window -- a beautiful sail over smooth seas to the Gulf, and light winds once there. Excellent! We even got here with fuel to spare. I hope we can hit future weather windows as well.

Sun 18 Jan 2004 19:45 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 35.443' N 85° 39.470' W -- Playa Panama, Bahia Culebra, Costa Rica; 3132.0 miles since Alameda, California

Lazy day today -- after sleeping for about 12 hours (both of us were on watch for most of the previous night), we lazed around, and spent a couple of hours snorkeling in the beautiful warm water -- 84 degrees, about 28 Celsius. The visibility underwater isn't too good, but it was nice anyway. The outside temperature is 173 Fahrenheit -- actually, I think our thermometer may be broken. The sky is mostly clear, with just a few puffy white clouds. Yup, it's pretty nice here.

Tomorrow we need to go and check in, and then we can do the fuel and water routine -- lugging it all in jerry cans once again. After that, we'll get a few supplies in and move on -- not sure to where yet, we might spend more time in Costa Rica, or we might get on down to Panama, where there are some nice islands to explore, and hopefully not as many tourists on jetskis.

Mon 19 Jan 2004 09:30 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 33.446' N 85° 41.680' W -- Playa del Coco, Costa Rica; 3137.8 miles since Alameda, California

Dropped the anchor off Playa del Coco to go and check in.

Mon 19 Jan 2004 20:15 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 33.450' N 85° 41.676' W -- Playa del Coco, Costa Rica; 3137.8 miles since Alameda, California

Checked into Costa Rica today. Of course, it took all day, but I'd certainly have to say that Costa Rica wins hands down over Mexico.

When we tell American cruisers that we had planned to skip Mexico, they generally react with horror, telling us that there's no way we can miss such a wonderful country. And they have a point, to some extent -- the people and country are great. But the run-around that they make cruisers do is insane -- port captain, customs, immigration, and port captain again for each port -- and milking money out of you at every opportunity, such as a fishing licence for each boat (ie. the boat and tender) and, additionally, a fishing licence for each person on board! This applies if you have any fishing gear on board, whether you use it or not, and would have come to $260 for us. Oh the other hand, enforcement of this law seems rather vague. (We apparently had no fishing kit in Mexico.)

Viradores South, by Playa del Coco

So, American cruisers like Mexico because it's all most of them see; but cruisers we've met who have been farther afield tell us that Mexico is about the worst country in the world in terms of bureaucracy, and often (or usually) agree with us about giving it a miss -- like the folks on Cherie, who have been cruising for years, and skipped Mexico entirely this time round.

Costa Rica is a great example of how it should be. A short visit to the port captain, who is a fantastic, friendly guy; then a trip to immigration, just up the road, also friendly and helpful; and then back to the port captain to meet customs there (they drive in from nearby Liberia) then we're done. Cost: zero. And once we're checked into the country, we can go to as many places as we like; we just have to check out when we leave, which costs $20 for the international port clearance. It would have been perfectly smooth except that the customs people were delayed because three planes landed at the airport, and they're rather understaffed.

Cherie, unfortunately, hit a snag; they wanted to stay here for three months, but were denied, because they're South African. Apparently, in the days of Apartheid (which was one of the things that prompted them to leave South Africa), they could get into any country, no problem. Now, they have problems, because South Africa is notorious for AIDS, and presumably for not dealing with it very well. (Never mind that they haven't been there for years -- Bevan, who's 8, has never seen his home country!) So, they got in for a month, which they may be able to extend.

Of course, the whole business of people who arrive by boat having to deal with port clearances and the port captain's paperwork is pretty ridiculous, but that's the same everywhere.

So our first impressions of Costa Rica are very positive, and if I were coming this way again I would certainly make an effort to skip Mexico, stop in El Salvador, then head straight to Costa Rica. The people here are great, and bend over backwards to be helpful; the climate is fantastic; and the scenery (what little we've seen of it) is amazing. And everything is very laid back; which is just as well given the climate.

We also managed to get some scouting in -- Costa Rica doesn't insist on just the boat's captain going ashore at first, in fact the whole crew are required to present themselves at immigration. So, we all had a good look around the town, and found the key things -- supermarket, bank (got some money changed), laundromat, ice plant -- all on the same road as the port captain and immigration. There are also an amazing number of internet cafes here, although the connections are pretty basic -- I don't think we're going to be able to send photos yet.

Tomorrow we're off to do the fuel and water routine. We're going to pool our dinghy with Cherie, so we can take all our cans back and forth each go, by towing our dinghy behind theirs. Fuel comes from a petrol station about 3 miles away, so we'll use a truck-taxi; for water, the port captain said we could use the tap in his garden (he lives over his office). Nice guy! He showed us home videos of some of the volcanoes in Costa Rica, and gave Bevan a shoulder patch from the maritime administration as a souvenir. He was particularly proud of the fact that Costa Rica is a non-military democracy, and that he wasn't in uniform -- a contrast to the countries to the north.

So that should pretty much use up tomorrow; we may get some laundry done too. This is a big deal, because if we can get our cold-weather gear washed, we can finally pack it away, which would be nice!

Tue 20 Jan 2004 20:26 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 33.452' N 85° 41.677' W -- Playa del Coco, Costa Rica; 3137.8 miles since Alameda, California

Got fuel today -- thanks to Cherie, who loaned us their fuel cans, we managed to fill the boat in one run. This is quite an involved process: dinghy the empty cans to the beach, and haul the dinghy up and lock it; lug the cans (8 of them) up the street, hanging from straps round my neck; take a truck/taxi to the out-of-town petrol station; fill the cans (about $80); truck back to town; lug the 8 full 5-gallon jerry-cans down the beach to the dinghies; take both dinghies (thanks again, Cherie) back to the boat (struggling in the surf when we launched them); haul the cans on board; and pour/siphon them into the tank. Just as well we only had to do this once. And it was a huge help to have Eugene of Cherie towing our dinghy back behind his motor-powered one -- we have only oars. Tomorrow we're going to help Cherie with their fuel runs.

After that, we rested for lunch, then rowed back to town to investigate the shops. We actually found a "marine supply store" with a basic selection of boat stuff, which is unusual south of the USA. The American ex-pat owner also stocked fishing gear, and we bought some new fishing tackle (ever hopeful of catching dinner one day). And a snorkel to replace the one of mine that slid overboard when I wasn't looking.

We also managed to scope out the supermarket -- surprisingly good for a small town -- and check out the ice plant, where we can get a yard-square slab of ice for the fridge for about $2.50. Finally, we hauled 20 gallons of water back to the boat and siphoned it into the tanks.

The supermarkets here are pretty well-stocked, but with all sorts of differences compared to US / UK shops. Any kind of cheese other than processed is almost impossible to get; on the other hand, there's an amazing range of fruit and veg, or at least things I presume are fruit and veg. Crisps are only the most basic kinds, but central America has its own diverse ranges of canned drinks. Oddly, as we go farther south, things are less US-dominated; so it's getting easier to find British items, such as McVities digestives -- a breakfast treat this morning.

One luxury we've just sampled (as I type) is Coco Lopez, which is kind of a canned coconut extract -- it's like the sweetened condensed milk of coconut. It's great over pineapple rings, or in a glass with pineapple juice and Triple Sec. (Quite a lot of Triple Sec, which is kind of like Cointreau.) It's probably good in all sorts of other combinations too -- we'll investigate and keep you informed.

Wed 21 Jan 2004 23:41 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 33.455' N 85° 41.677' W -- Playa del Coco, Costa Rica; 3137.8 miles since Alameda, California

Didn't get a huge amount done today: two water runs (that's another 40 gallons), and a HUGE load of laundry -- for an exorbitantly high price! Still, that's the sleeping bag and all the winter gear ready to pack away for a while.

Apart from that, we spent the evening visiting Cherie, and listening to their tales of 12 years of cruising -- pretty interesting stuff, since they've been quite adventurous. After crossing the Atlantic from South Africa, they went a long way up the Amazon, then visited Devil's Island (of Papillon fame), then crossed the south Pacific to New Zealand... now they're looking for a work opportunity to allow them to spend some time in Costa Rica, failing which they'll be heading back to South Africa via the Pacific and Indian oceans. Quite a journey, especially for young Bevan, who hasn't known any other way of life!

Panorama of a sunset in Playa del Coco

It turns out that Bevan is a huge Harry Potter fan (well, of course he is), and has read the first four books -- all he's got -- dozens of times. So I decided to give him my copy of book 5 -- not without some misgivings, as I've only read it a half-dozen times! Still, that should keep him occupied for a while -- all 800-odd pages of it.

Thu 22 Jan 2004 21:08 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 33.458' N 85° 41.678' W -- Playa del Coco, Costa Rica; 3137.8 miles since Alameda, California

Spent the day planning and relaxing -- those islands in northern Panama are starting to look pretty enticing, so we're thinking about making an early move down the coast.

Having said that, we also made another water run -- the tanks are full now -- and got a huge slab if ice from the ice plant, to set the fridge up (running it constantly drains the batteries). So it was at least a partly productive day.

After all that, it's 9 pm. and I'm ready for bed -- must be all the fresh air.

Fri 23 Jan 2004 19:41 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 33.460' N 85° 41.678' W -- Playa del Coco, Costa Rica; 3137.8 miles since Alameda, California

Although we've only been in Costa Rica a week, and it's certainly a beautiful country, we've decided to cut short our stay -- in fact, today we checked out of the country, and tomorrow morning (in theory) we'll be leaving.

There are really two reasons -- first, we want to get through the canal and spend the maximum amount of time in the western Caribbean -- if you're wondering why, hopefully you'll have the answer in a month or so! But second, and in the shorter term, we're aiming for the islands of northern Panama, which are supposed to be beautiful, and many of which are uninhabited -- around Boca Brava near David, and the Golfo de Montijo.

So after one last shore trip tomorrow morning, we're off. We may stop in a bay in Costa Rica on the way, but the snorkelling is not too good here -- the water's too cloudy -- so Panama here we come!

Sat 24 Jan 2004 20:01 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 33.462' N 85° 41.678' W -- Playa de Cocos, Costa Rica; 3137.9 miles since Alameda, California

Still in Costa Rica! We failed to get off the mark this morning, but we did get a lot of preparation done, so all being well we'll be off tomorrow. We got our last shopping in, using the last of our Costa Rican currency -- right down to the last 10 colones (about 1.5p). We also did another huge load of laundry, finishing off all the bedding that we need to pack away; I set up our new fishing hand-line, and Rachel made a lure for it by tying strips of coloured plastic bag around a weight and hook. The dinghy is lashed down on deck, and we're pretty well organised for sea.

We had a beautiful sunset tonight -- the sky went amazing shades of red and blue, with the Moon and Venus close together in the west.

Costa Rican coastline
Sun 25 Jan 2004 18:13 America/El_Salvador
Position: 10° 24.889' N 85° 56.311' W; 3157.0 miles since Alameda, California

Under way at last! After spending the morning getting the boat tidied up, we raised anchor at 1 pm. local time and headed off. We said our farewells to Cherie on the VHF -- they're staying in Costa Rica for a while, but they may catch us in Panama -- and on the way out, greeted another British-flagged boat, Elanymor. This was a huge blue-hulled steel boat that looked like a converted research vessel, complete with helicopter on the back. For some reason they said I didn't sound British on the radio, but I think their hearing must be faulty!

Playa del Coco was nice -- a pretty small town, with two dusty main roads, lined with ramshackle-looking buildings; but with lots of trees, not much traffic, and nice, friendly people. It has just everything we needed -- the port captain, immigration office, bank, and supermarket are all on one road, as well as several internet cafes, and the inevitable souvenir shops. A tree-shaded plaza faces the long beach, which is the focus of the town, with lots of people enjoying the sun and surf, and lots of boats -- fishing and tour operators, and the dinghies of cruisers like ourselves.

A big pain was the lack of a useful water supply -- getting water from the port captain's garden tap was a pain, with quarter-mile carry to where the dinghy was beached. In fact, using the dinghy was generally a challenge, given the quite high surf on the beach, but we didn't have any major mishaps. Overall, though, Coco was a nice place for a stop, and it would have been cool to see more of Costa Rica. The best thing was the laid-back attitude of all the locals; the formalities are so much easier when the officials are friendly and relaxed. Still, Panama beckons...

Once out of the bay we motored for a while, because our batteries needed a bit of a charge, and pretty soon had left the infamous Gulf of Papagayo behind; but now we're sailing under mainsail and genoa in a light sea breeze. It's pretty warm, and the sky is mostly clear, but the breeze is keeping us cool.

Cool sunset

We just had the most beautiful sunset; the sky was deep orange-red, with beautiful patterns in the clouds. Venus and the crescent Moon were lined up above the setting Sun. We took loads of pictures; now all I need is a good internet connection so I can share them! Just after that, we were visited by dolphins for a while, so we're off to a good start.

We're now 19.2 miles out of Playa del Coco; 3243 miles from San Francisco. We're 5 miles off Cabo Velas in Costa Rica. And 283 miles from our first stop in Panama.

Mon 26 Jan 2004 23:28 America/El_Salvador
Position: 9° 23.705' N 85° 21.937' W; 3239.2 miles since Alameda, California

We had a great night last night. There's basically no wind here, so we're sailing by the daily land and sea breezes; but these have been pretty good to us so far. Last night, the sea breeze died at about 8 pm., and the land breeze started just after midnight; but it was a good strong breeze, that lasted until around 9 am., and gave us speeds up to 5 knots.

The best part, though, was the visit from about half a dozen dolphins, who stayed for a good half hour. We heard them at first, but then we saw them -- or rather, the glowing trails they made in the phosphorescence. They were in a playful mood, darting back and forth, making great swoops and swirls, and occasionally shooting right under the boat and back. For a long time, several of them swam along under the bowsprit, and were clearly outlined in phosphorescence, so that we could see every detail of their shapes.

We got the sea breeze again today, from mid-day to around 10 pm.; now I'm just waiting for the land breeze to (hopefully) fill in. If it doesn't, I'll probably motor for a while, since a current is pushing us back along our course at 1.6 knots! We're now 100 miles out of Playa del Coco, and 18 miles southwest of Cabo Blanco, Costa Rica. 208 miles to our first stop in Panama.

Tue 27 Jan 2004 18:25 America/El_Salvador
Position: 8° 56.829' N 84° 40.800' W; 3291.0 miles since Alameda, California

Had a quiet day's sail today; the land and sea breezes are still our only source of wind, but they were weaker today as it was mostly overcast. Still, we've been sailing most of the day, and making slow but steady progress.

We're 40 miles offshore, almost half-way down the Bahia de Coronado between Cabo Blanco and Punta san Pedro. We're 151 miles out of Playa del Coco, and 158 miles from our destination -- almost half way; we're thinking we may get there sometime Friday, if conditions stay the same.

We've been trying fishing again, this time with a hand-line which is far easier to set up and handle than the rod; but we haven't had a single bite with it. This despite the fact that the waters off Costa Rica are renowned for fabulous fishing. I wonder what's up? We're using the same lures that we had success with on the rod.

And there are certainly fish about -- we saw a feeding frenzy today where loads of dolphins, accompanied by flocks of birds, were filling themselves up off a school of fish. The dolphins were leaping so far out of the water that they seemed to hang in the air for seconds before falling back.

Rachel tried to make me a surprise cake today -- a nice thought, but it turned out that every single egg we had was bad! Oh well, that was the bunch we got in Huatulco, on December 31. They should have kept longer, though.

Still, she pulled off a brilliant recovery by converting the other ingredients (already mixed) into a cherry crisp, which was delicious.

Wed 28 Jan 2004 19:03 America/El_Salvador
Position: 8° 23.728' N 83° 47.110' W; 3355.4 miles since Alameda, California

Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that we've been getting some real wind -- not just land and sea breezes -- so we've managed to sail full-time, without starting the engine all day. The bad news is that it's a pretty weak wind; we spent several hours today doing just a knot and a half. Still, we're not in a special hurry -- there are no more weather barriers with weather windows to aim for -- and it's really nice to just sail quietly along, with the windvane doing the steering, whatever the speed.

Right now, an hour and a half after sunset, the wind is dropping again, so we're gradually slowing down. Still, we're over 2.5 knots, so the miles are gradually going by. We're now 217 miles out of Playa de Cocos, and 96 miles from our destination, for a total of 313 miles -- given that the planned length of our route (going from waypoint to waypoint in dead straight lines) is 301 miles, that's not too bad. We're 10 miles offshore, approaching Punta Salsipuedes in Costa Rica.

We had a beautiful sunset this evening -- with the half Moon almost dead overhead, and Venus in between. And if last night was anything to go by, there should be lots of stars out, with the Milky Way clearly visible -- lovely!

Thu 29 Jan 2004 19:55 America/El_Salvador
Position: 7° 57.283' N 82° 46.885' W; 3430.8 miles since Alameda, California

We're now on our sixth country since the USA -- we're off the coast of Panama, on our way towards some nice anchorages, and then the canal.

Crossing into Panama

We had another calm-wind night; but this morning, a black squall developed right in front of us. I realised it might be a bit windy when I saw a huge twisting funnel of water spray off to one side! Fortunately, squalls like that show up on radar pretty well, so I was able to plot its course, and with the help of the engine, avoid the centre of it. (Rachel was asleep at the time.) Actually, although I had the genoa down and everything lashed in preparation, we saw hardly any wind at all; but we did get about 15 minutes of heavy rain, our first real rain since San Diego.

Later, about 9 am., we started to get some good wind, and started sailing for real, albeit at only 3 knots or so. But this evening, just before sunset, we finally crossed into Panamanian waters -- or as near as we can figure it, by extending the land border at Punta Burica out to sea. So it's goodbye to Costa Rica; we had our little flag-changing ceremony just as the sun was setting.

We finally gybed to make our turn at Punta Burica, about 4 miles offshore, at 7 pm., and the wind started blowing more strongly -- now we're making 5 knots towards our first planned stop, with 30 miles to go. We're guessing that the wind will drop soon; if not, we'll arrive at the islands in pitch darkness, and we'd have to heave to until morning, since there are a lot of rocks around there.

So we're now just 8 miles east-southeast of Punta Burica, and 293 miles out of San Diego; by this time tomorrow, we should be anchored.

Note on flags: we fly our own Red Ensign, of course (which is the flag for UK merchant and pleasure ships) at the flagstaff, on the stern, which is the honour position. But it's traditional -- a tradition which is mandatory in many countries -- to fly the ensign of the country you're visiting from the starboard rigging. Hence the need to carry a whole kit of country flags, and change them when we cross the borders.

Flying your own ensign from the starboard rigging is wrong -- which doesn't stop a lot of people (specially in the US, I have to say) doing it.

Fri 30 Jan 2004 18:31 America/El_Salvador
Position: 8° 07.351' N 82° 19.621' W -- Isla Parida, Panama; 3479.6 miles since Alameda, California

For much of our voyage down the coast, we've been begging for more wind. Last night was the exception -- we were on schedule to arrive at the rock-strewn Gulf of Chiriqui in darkness, and a nice bit of light wind would have delayed us til dawn. And guess what -- it blew nice and strong all night long!

So, after crossing into Panama at Punta Burica, we crossed Bahia Charco Azul (Blue Sea Bay) pretty quickly, and ended up within a few miles of Isla Parida by midnight. We therefore hove to (ie. set the sails to effectively "park" the boat) and waited for dawn.

Isla Parida

At first light, we started motoring into Isla Parida. The island is quite inhospitable on the west side, but the east shore is deeply indented with many sheltered bays, and hundreds of reefs, rocks and islands provide shelter (as well as making navigation tricky). Arriving from the west, as we did, you can pass around the south end of the island, picking your way through the reefs; or go around the north end, which is pretty much open, but has some shallow water near the northern point.

We decided to go around the north end, and to use the deep water channel which, oddly enough, stays very close to the shore, and even cuts inside one outlying island. This made for a long run within a stones throw of steep cliffs, rocks, and reefs; so we triple-checked our navigation, and followed our planned route slavishly. Fortunately, the charts of Panama seem to be quite accurate; elsewhere in central America, it's not uncommon to find features up to 5 miles from their charted locations.

So, we approached the west shore of Isla Parida, cut inside Isla Catalina, and then skirted round the north end of Parida. Coming down the east coast, we started passing the many sheltered bays, each with a nice sandy beach, which make good anchorages here. This was why we came to Parida -- it's highly recommended in our guides, and by our friends on Cherie, for its beautiful beaches, each set against a fringe of palm trees and backed by imposing jungle-covered steep hills.

Isla Bolaños

We passed a couple of good candidates for anchorage, both near Isla Gamez, a nice little uninhabited island just off Parida. After that, we cut across to Isla Bolaños, about 4 miles away, a smaller island than Parida and also uninhabited. Bolaños was recommended for its nice sheltered anchorage, but this turned out to be somewhat exposed, and a lot more rolly than the ones off Parida. Still, we dropped the hook for the day, blew up the inflatable kayak, and paddled over to the main attraction of Bolaños -- a beautiful jungle-backed white sand beach, with nice snorkelling over coral reefs.

The beach on Isla Bolaños

Well, the water was a slight disappointment, being very cloudy (as usual on the Pacific coast), so the snorkelling wasn't world-class; but the water was lovely and warm, like floating in a warm bath! So, we certainly still had a great day there. We explored the island -- not much wildlife, except for lots of hermit crabs; then we had a long swim, explored the coral, saw a few tropical fish, and spent a while body-surfing onto the beach, which we had all to ourselves. Still, we can't wait to get to the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean.

As the afternoon wore on, we decided that we didn't want to spend a night in the rolls there, so we upped anchor and headed back to Parida. And that's where we are now -- anchored off a beach just north of Mogote Sepulcro, beautifully sheltered and calm. Just as well -- we're both ready for bed! And the good news is that we both get to sleep all night long!

Our scouting trip past Parida, out to Bolaños, and back in again

Note on navigation -- yes, we have a sextant on board, and the volumes of tables that go with it, and we both plan to use more traditional navigation as we go. However, so far most of our navigation has been by GPS.

GPS is an incredible boon for sailors -- extremely reliable, and basically fool-proof, it tells you where you are with amazing accuracy; right now, our GPS's estimated error is 16 feet. The snag is that it doesn't tell you where everything else is -- you need charts for that, and if the charts are wrong, then following a GPS route can lead you right into the rocks. Many central American charts were last surveyed in 1875 or so -- and are, as you might expect, rather inaccurate! So, we always navigate with one eye on what the landscape is doing. Radar is a big help for this, but it's still better to avoid all but the most simple entrances at night.

Moonrise at Isla Bolaños
Sat 31 Jan 2004 18:13 America/El_Salvador
Position: 8° 07.351' N 82° 19.621' W -- Isla Parida, Panama; 3479.6 miles since Alameda, California

We did a little kayak exploring today. First, I swam (with mask and fins) over to the beach on Isla Parida, which was quite a swim, taking about 15 minutes. The jungle behind the beach is pretty impenetrable, and the water was very cloudy, but it was still nice to stroll on the beach, totally alone, having swam there.

After that, we launched the kayak again and paddled over to Isla Gamez, 0.6 miles away, which was also quite a stretch in an inflatable kayak. We landed on a beach on a narrow part of the island, where the beaches on the north and south sides are connected; then we swam off the nice beach on the north side for a couple of hours.

Isla Gamez

There were quite a few brightly-coloured fish, specially on the rocky east end of the beach, and a few patches of coral. Lots of interesting shells, though, and we had a great swim in the lovely warm, but still cloudy, water.

After that, we just had enough energy to paddle back and have a shower with the garden sprayer we keep in the cockpit.

Tomorrow, we're planning to move on, probably all the way to the canal zone; snorkelling in the murk here has reinforced our desire to get to the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean as soon as possible. It should take about a week to get there, and then we'll investigate the waiting time for a transit.

Sun 1 Feb 2004 20:21 America/El_Salvador
Position: 7° 53.714' N 82° 09.938' W; 3498.0 miles since Alameda, California

We're under way again, and bound for the canal.

We spent the morning, and some of the afternoon, getting the boat ready; it's amazing how disorganised things get after just a couple of days at anchor. We got going at half past three, and motored out from between the rocks and reefs around Isla Parida, once more keeping carefully to our planned GPS course. Once out in clear water, we set sail in a nice breeze, which is now fading out on us once more.

Still, we're making progress; we hope to get to Bahia de Panama, where the canal starts, around Friday. Right now, we're 360 miles out of Playa de Cocos, and 259 from the canal, heading south to pass outside of Isla de Coiba sometime tomorrow.

Mon 2 Feb 2004 09:00 America/Panama
Position: 7° 26.562' N 82° 01.041' W; 3526.6 miles since Alameda, California

Changed to timezone GMT-5.

Mon 2 Feb 2004 19:04 America/Panama
Position: 7° 11.110' N 81° 51.050' W; 3545.1 miles since Alameda, California

We've had a really slow day today; wallowing along in light winds. The wind finally rose to gentle breeze force an hour or so ago, and we're just rounding the south-east corner of Isla Coiba, and turning east for Punta Mariato and the canal.

A couple of minor milestones today: we set our clocks an hour forward to Panama time (we were a few days late with this -- again), so we're now 5 hours behind GMT. And we deleted all of the Pacific charts, except Panama, from the computer, and loaded up the Caribbean charts from CD. Looking forward to the Caribbean...

One nice thing this morning was checking into the Panama Connection radio net, where I made contact with my friend Elaine, who used to keep her boat in the same marina where Moonrise was berthed. She set off in her 32-foot boat, Morning Star, in September 2002, and is now in the Caribbean, so maybe we'll meet up with her soon.

On the domestic front, we baked bread, which came out great, and had some minor success fishing, for the first time since Costa Rica. That's where we bought a new hand-line, with 200' of black string as a line; we've been using it ever since, and not had a single nibble. We guessed that the line might be putting fish off somehow, but with a thin wire leader, 3 feet long, between it and the lure, we couldn't see how.

So today we trailed a monofilament line, using the same lures -- and within half an hour, had a fish hooked. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a nearly-inedible skipjack, so back it went. Half an hour later, we had another skipjack on the boat and returned to the sea. So it looks like monofilament line is the way to go; now, if only we could catch a mahi-mahi...

Tue 3 Feb 2004 20:25 America/Panama
Position: 7° 17.621' N 80° 16.602' W; 3645.5 miles since Alameda, California

Rounding Isla Coiba last night took us out of the big gulf between it and the Panama border at Punta Burica; in other words, onto the route that ships would follow to the canal. Sure enough, we immediately started seeing big ships -- lots of them, more than we've seen before. Fortunately, there's still lots of space here, so we found room to maneuver.

After motoring for a while, some wind came up on Rachel's watch, so she set the main and genoa and turned off the engine; a nice present for me when I got on watch at 2 am. (For some reason, most of the way down, the wind has died on her watch and restarted on mine).

At 10:40 we passed, quite literally, the biggest turning point of the trip -- we rounded Punta Mariato and turned north, at N 6 deg 59.158', W 80 deg 54.046'; if we head back to Scotland eastabout from here, this will have been the farthest point south on our trip. We actually detoured a little so we could say we'd been down below 7 north; it would be great to have crossed the Equator, having come so close, but that would have been a ridiculous detour.

Still, we had a whole new experience at sunset -- the Sun set in the wrong place! This whole trip, it's been setting to starboard, since we've been sailing generally southeast; but tonight it set to port, aft, as we sailed northeast towards Punta Mala.

Morro de Puercos, looking ahead to Punta Mala

Well, we motored for a lot of today, but suddenly the wind came on strong, and now we're sailing at nearly 6 knots, with the main, staysail, and genoa all up (a new combination for us). We're now 509 miles out of Costa Rica, and 109 miles from the sea buoy at the canal, and we're about 7 miles offshore. We've just passed Morro de Puercos ("Pig Head", as far as I know), and we're heading for Punta Mala -- "Bad Point", but don't worry, they're all called things like Bad Point, or Cape Shipwreck, etc. I'm sure it doesn't mean anything...

Tue 3 Feb 2004 21:20 America/Panama
Position: 7° 19.357' N 80° 13.082' W; 3649.4 miles since Alameda, California

Later... now I'm completely drenched in sea water. The wind suddenly came up, and so of course we had too much sail up. The way we have the boat rigged, we can haul the genoa down in a flash without going forward of the mast, which is very useful; but getting it tied up so it doesn't get knocked about by the waves involves going up on the bowsprit. So soon there I was, clinging on to the end of the sprit with both hands as wave after wave broke over me. The motion here is horrible, due to an awful crossed sea; ie. two (at least) sets of waves are moving in opposite directions here, with a strong wind and a strong current in yet another direction mixing things up even more. This produces a horrible lumpy swell which makes the boat move in a very uncomfortable way. Needless to say, I was tethered to the boat by two separate tethers at all times. Now we're motorsailing -- the wind is dead ahead -- til we can clear Punta Mala and the effect it has on the wind. Meantime, it's time for some clean clothes and a sponge bath...

Wed 4 Feb 2004 20:15 America/Panama
Position: 7° 53.644' N 79° 20.834' W; 3715.7 miles since Alameda, California

Got round Punta Mala last night, and into the last stage, the Gulf of Panama. The strong wind is still with us, and unfortunately from the north, where we want to go; added to that is a 2-knot adverse current, which makes progress hard. The sea is as lumpy as ever, so it's still pretty uncomfortable here. This is about the worst stretch of sailing we've had, specially when you take our dismal progress into account.

We're cutting across the Gulf to the Perlas islands, beyond which there is said to be some shelter and a favourable current; we should be in the islands' lee sometime tomorrow. Meantime we're cutting across what should be one of the busiest shipping areas in the world, the Pacific approach to the Panama Canal. Oddly, we haven't seen as much shipping as we'd expect; that is, not the steady stream we had thought we might see. We're keeping an extra-close lookout, though, and there are still quite a few ships showing up on our 24-mile radar scans.

Oh for some smooth sailing, or a nice calm anchorage...

Thu 5 Feb 2004 20:26 America/Panama
Position: 8° 37.066' N 78° 51.196' W; 3808.2 miles since Alameda, California

We spent today sailing around the outside of the Perlas Islands, over on the east side of the Gulf of Panama. This is quite a detour for us, but the crossing to the islands was a lot nicer than the punishing beat we were attempting up the west side of the Gulf. Unfortunately, the favourable current didn't arrive, but at least we didn't have much adverse current, and the winds allowed us to sail more or less straight around the east side of the Gulf, so the going has been relatively smooth.

Well heeled over!

Having said that, it still very windy, so we're well heeled over, but the waves are a little smaller now we're closer to land. And we've left the shipping traffic behind -- all of the shipping routes, north, west, and south, are over on the west side of the gulf. (Seems strange, but look at a map, and draw a straight line from the Canal to go around South America, and it takes you over that way.)

So now we're tacking to get on a good line for the last approach to Balboa; we're 11 miles north of San Miguel, on Isla del Rey. 689 miles out of Costa Rica, and 42 miles to go...

Sat 7 Feb 2004 07:18 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.338' N 79° 33.563' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

We've made it to Balboa! After all the preparation, and 2 months of sailing, we're finally moored at the Balboa Yacht club, right by the number 16 buoy of the canal itself, and looking at the Bridge of the Americas, which is just half a mile upstream. So we've already taken our first steps in the crossing to the Atlantic. After a long night on watch, for most of the night, I was so exhausted that I fell straight into bed last night -- which is why this log is a little late!

We had a pretty hard sail to get here. Thursday night the wind was pretty wild at one point, which meant more sail changes, working in floods of water (warm, fortunately) pouring over the decks. But eventually things calmed down, and we got down to a steady routine. At one point we were just 45 miles from the San Blas islands, our dream destination -- but on the wrong side of the continent!

Panama City, from just south of Isla Flamenco

By 5 am., the wind had died, and the engine was on -- plenty of fuel left, fortunately. And by 6 am., we could see the lights of Panama City through the binoculars -- and the huge fleet of huge ships at anchor, waiting to go through the canal. Isla Taboga came into view an hour later. Those ships just kept getting bigger and bigger as we motored on -- it felt as if we were way to close, but we just had to keep getting closer. Eventually we were passing right through the anchorage -- frantically scanning round with binoculars the whole time, to make sure that all of the ships whose bows we were (almost literally) passing under still had their anchors down.

Our destination was Balboa Yacht Club -- a pretty basic place, by all accounts, but the most convenient for yachts transiting the canal. It was made even more basic a couple of years ago, when the clubhouse (which was pretty ramshackle to begin with) burned down. There are supposed to be showers and a pool, but they seem to be closed. There are no berths; the boat swings on a mooring, just yards away from the main shipping channel leading into the canal. Also, you can't take your dinghy ashore; you have to rely on the club's water taxi service, which is theoretically included in the price, but if you don't tip the drivers, they'll be really slow in answering your calls! For all this, they still charge $11 per night.

Channel buoy 4, in the approach to the Panama Canal

We were thinking about all this as we rounded the signal station on Isla Flamenco, at the head of the anchorage, and headed towards the channel. There is another marina on Flamenco, but when we called them on the VHF they had no spaces. So we made our way up the channel, all the while looking out for large ships. There, though, we had no problems -- from when the anchorage came into view around 8 am., we saw no ships at all going either up or down the canal. After a few hours, this was getting worrying -- is the canal closed for some disaster?

The Bridge of the Americas

As we motored up the channel, the Bridge of the Americas came into view -- the bridge that connects North and South America together, crossing over the canal. The Balboa Yacht Club is just short of the bridge on the right; once we passed it and checked out the moorings, I circled once under the bridge while Rachel prepared our mooring lines. Once back at the club, a "lancha" (launch) came out to help us in; Mario, the launch skipper, led us to a mooring at the north end of the club, and helped us to get tied up. Just as we were tying up, a freighter finally came down the canal!

So the first big leg of our journey is over -- two months to the day, and 3,401 miles, from San Diego, and 3,879 miles from Alameda. The boat's GPS odometer (which counts miles since I bought the boat) is now at 5,103.5 miles.

Entering Balboa

Once settled in, we went ashore to start the formalities. Given the need to arrange a transit, as well as the usual checking in and out, this is pretty complex, specially as the officials are scattered all over the south end of the canal zone and organised around the huge volume of commercial traffic here. To cope with all this, you can hire a ship's agent, some of whom are prepared to handle yachts; but this, of course, is rather expensive. A far better option is to retain a taxi driver to help you through the hassle.

Several of the local taxi drivers specialise in helping yachties, and Rachel, having been here before (she transited a couple of years ago when crewing on another boat) knows one of the nicest, most helpful guys in Panama -- Luis Enrique. He's a taxi driver full-time, and knows exactly where a yachtie needs to go to complete all the formalities. More than this, he actually walks you into the offices and explains in Spanish what we want -- since he knows all the officials personally, this makes things very smooth!

Beyond the paperwork, he can arrange all the other things a yacht needs to transit the canal. First, tyres -- we want to line the sides of the boat with about 16 tyres, to act as super- fenders for the canal. Then, lines -- we need 4 125-foot, 2 cm diameter lines for use in the transit. We have nothing like this on board (2cm diameter is huge), so we will rent these through Luis. Then, line handlers -- as well as the captain, a yacht must have on board 4 crew to handle the lines. We will be hoping to get other boaters to do this for us (and we'll do it for them), but failing that, Luis will sort it out -- he and some of his buddies are expert line handlers.

So once we got ashore -- it was already pretty late -- we found Luis, and Rachel presented him with a really cool photo she took of him in Gatun locks last time she was here -- we printed it off for him just before we went ashore, and he was tickled pink to get it!

Having made contact, we got him to take us to immigration. We would never have found this ourselves, since it's buried deep in the commercial port, but Luis whisked us in and got our passports stamped, which made us legal. It was too late to complete checking in, which we can do on Monday, when Rachel will need to buy a visa -- oddly, US citizens need visas here, but Brits don't. Strange, since they built the place!

So Luis has been great already -- he's arranging for the admeasurer, who inspects vessels prior to transit, to come on Monday, and Luis will be here with the lines ready for inspection. After that, he'll take us to complete check-in, and start the process of arranging our transit. For all this, his fees are very reasonable indeed.

So, having got our passports stamped, we stopped for a quick tour of Balboa, and some essential supplies -- huge bags of crisps, giant bottles of pop, and 25-pound sack of ice! Back on the boat, we guzzled and snacked -- ice-cold drinks for the first time in days -- and collapsed into bed.

Balboa is pretty nice -- the whole Canal Zone was developed by the US, of course, and Balboa is all laid out in a nice, US-military-1930s style, which means broad streets, and nice lawns and promenades, and lots of colonial-style buildings, all of which are slowly crumbling, but still retaining a faded beauty. Even the yacht club is not so bad -- basic, yes, but the water taxi guys are nice -- actually, everyone we've met is really nice -- and there's at least ice available right on the dock, which is also a fuel dock (the first one we've seen since San Diego).

Now we've got a couple of days to relax and explore before things start getting hot on Monday. Actually, it's already pretty hot...