Monday, December 21, 2009

A Big Canal and a Little Village

Our arrival in Panama on December 9th seemed to designate the start of "Phase II" of this Great Adventure. We've regained our landlegs and, for the first time since leaving San Diego, stayed off boats for more than a week!

An adventure in itself was our passage through the Panama Canal on the 11th. It was a thrilling experience, and probably one of the most memorable of our entire trip -- not just in the sheer awesomeness of the processes, people, and moving parts of the Canal, but also in the opportunity to be part of a extraordinarily impressive system that has functioned continuously and flawlessly for nearly a century. In case you missed us on the live web cam, we made the eight hour transit under the adept direction of our assigned Transit Director, Robin, with Ben controlling the port bow line, Emily at the port stern line, and two hired linehandlers taking care of our starboard. The first stage of the transit, called "uplocking," involves a series of three chambers, each of which successively brings the boat to the height of the next chamber by rapidly filling with water; our job as linehandlers is to maintain tension on the lines connecting our boat to the massive concrete walls, thus keeping the boat in the center of the chamber and a safe distance from the 800 ft. cargo ship that is only about 20 ft. in front of us in each of the chambers.

After uplocking, we arrive at Gaturn Lake, 85 ft. above sea level, which takes about three hours to motor across. For the downlocking portion, which starts at the end of the lake, we were in front of a Japanese container ship -- its 40 ft.-tall bow towered over our little catamaran; its anchor dangled perilously over Emily's head. Downlocking, which also takes place in three successive chambers, is a bit less physically strenuous for us linehandlers than is uplocking, since it involves letting tension out on the four lines as the water level drops.

Back at sea level at the end of the day, the giant metal gates of the final chambers opened up before us, leading us straight onto the Caribbean Sea. From there, it was a few days cleaning Escapade at the Caribbean-side marina, a bus ride back to Panama City, and a few days exploring and eating our way through the metropolis of the capitol before escaping for the beauty of Barrigon.

This secluded mountain community is home to one of Emily´s closest friends, Kayla, who has been our hostess with the mostess for the last five days. Kayla is a Peace Corps volunteer who, during our time here, has been working with the community on edible garden plots, nutrition-related education, fuel conservation/efficient wood-burning stoves, and a variety of other endeavors too numerous to name. Kayla has integrated herself into the community in a truly admirable way, and the people of Barrigon have a mutual love and respect for her.

We have been indirect beneficiaries of this work and trust -- at just about every turn of the forested paths, we are greeted wtih a smile and "Buenos Dias." We have been readily welcomed into every family home we have visited and to every community event, including a raucous end-of-the-year school fiesta and a First Communion ceremony.

We´re having such a good time that we don´t want to leave! We´ll spend one more night in Kayla´s beautiful little house, and from there journey into the National Park that is a six hour trek up the road from Barrigon. We´ll spend Christmas in Panama City with Kayla and another dear friend, Micaela. From there... who knows?

Happy holidays! We wish everyone happiness and good health in the last days of 2009.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Canal Transitting

Tomorrow, Friday the 11th, we transit the Panama Canal. It's kind of a big deal. If you're interested, you can catch us on live web cam (okay, it's more like still shots updated every few minutes) at sometime during the day.

On the site, you'll see options to view several cameras placed at strategic places throughout the transit. The order by which we'll pass each will be: Miraflores Locks, Centennial Bridge, and Gatun Locks. We'll begin our trip sometime around 7am East Coast time and will probably be to the Caribbean side sometime between the afternoon and the evening - but due to the unpredictability of the transit schedule, it's impossible to say where we'll be at any given time. So be hip and take the whole day off to watch us on this momentous journey. Or check in every now and again and try to get lucky - we'll be the big catamaran sitting in the middle of the locks, hopefully not getting run over by a 900 foot container ship.

We're really excited - wish us luck!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

We Have Arrived

Pictures from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama:

Kayak-bound Mangrove exploration near Puesta del Sol (Nicaragua)

Loungin´ Aboard Escapade Under a Full Main and Genoa:

Morning reading spot on Escapade (Otto, the autopilot, takes care of the driving most the time)

Ben and Boat-Dog Nash in Costa Rica´s Spectacular Bahia Santa Elena

Ben harvests coconuts in Las Perlas:

Emily enjoys the harvest:

Our cabin porthole - not a bad view to wake up to, eh?

Ben and Emily, Survivors of a different sort

Emily casting for the big lunker...end result: skunked!

Our own private island for a day: Isla San Bartolomé in Las Perlas:

Well, not quite literally - it´s hard to ´arrive´when your final destination is ambiguous, at best. But figuratively, we´ve totally made it. After our taxing, nearly nonstop passage from Nicaragua, we have reached Panama and are preparing for our transit through the Canal, scheduled for Friday. As a reward for our quick pace, we spent a few days relaxing in Las Perlas Islands in the Bay of Panama, about 50 miles southeast of Panama City and the Canal.

During a trip with no defined final goal, these islands were about as close as it comes to fulfilling our images of what we were looking forward to when we started this crazy hare-brained adventure. Las Perlas are the embodiment of the idyllic tropical scene - small, barely-inhabited islands covered with palm trees and ringed by white sand. Fresh coconut water is ample...for anyone willing to shimmy up a tree, knock loose a coconut, smash it on a rock, painstakingly pry it open and get doused and splashed with its leaking juice in the process of reaching the remaining tablespoon of water - there are plenty of coconuts; our energy is the limiting factor. The rest of our days are spent enjoying the fine sand, the big blue sky with corresponding big red sunsets, the warm water and - with the help of snorkel and fins - the myriad fish, rocks, and coral formations beneath the surface. No wonder ABC (NBC?) chose these islands to film the Survivor series a few years ago.

And now in Panama City (anchored beneath the historic ´Bridge of the Americas´) we are seeing more human bodies than we´ve seen since leaving Los Angeles a month and a half ago - talk about sensory overload! If all goes as planned, we will transit the Canal (three locks up, across huge Lake Gatun, three locks down to the ´other side´) this Friday, the 11th; Escapade will tie up to the dock for Christmas and we´ll go ahead on our own way, wherever that may lead. Stay tuned in the next day or so for more complete details on the transit - you may be able to watch us on a live video stream.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Where the Wild Things Find Us

We've made it to Nicaragua, to a small protected estuary and mangrove-lined bay near the town of Chinendega. In Escapade's quest to make it through the Panama Canal before Christmas, we've been running pretty hard for the last week or so, foregoing extended stays in the ports we have stopped in. To take advantage of a much-coveted weather window in the Gulf of Tehantepec, we cruised briskly through Acapulco, Puerto Angel, and Hualtuco on the Oaxacan coast. The Gulf is notorious for full-force gales when the weather gets rough, sometimes trapping yatistas North or South of it for days or even weeks at a time.

Thanksgiving landed right in the middle of our latest passage, a 3-night, 4-day trek from Hualtuco to here. We were underway the entire day, and it turned out to be a beautiful one: baths for the boat and for us, pleasant winds from behind, and a remarkably traditional meal that Debbie whipped up from the boat's larder (and, note from Ben, an incredible apple crisp baked by Emily - good for dessert that night and breakfast the next morning!).

As we sail through the salty waters, scramble around land when in port, snorkel off the back deck, and otherwise take advantage of our natural surroundings that our lifestyle affords us, it's become clear to both of us that our encounters with nature are some of the best parts of this journey. As such, we would like to dedicate the remainder of this post to fill you in on some of the wildlife that we've run into, or (as you'll see) that has run into us:

  • Dolphins, dolphins everywhere: While their playful, friendly visits are not infrequent, they never get old. In packs of five or six or more, they come cruising up to the side or the bow of the boat and stay with us for awhile, leaping and spinning and showing off in a grand fashing. We believe we've met a few different sorts: Pantropical Spotted, Striped, and Common Gray. Our favorite encounter occurred in the middle of the night-- Ben was on watch when a large family of dolphins found our bow and entered into some of their most formidable theatrics, highlighted - literally - by a surreal bioluminescents show, making them look like comets flying through the water all around us. Fortunately, they hung around long enough for Ben to wake up Emily to enjoy the 3 am performance.

  • Crabs galore, including those that climb trees and those that scale rocks, those that swim through water with fiercesome speed and those that scuttle over the sand at a neck-breaking pace.

  • As is generally the case in any glorious ecosystem, the wildlife we've found has been smart, adept, and well-adapted. But not Boobys. Not the smartest birds on the block, boobys visited the crew of Ohana often, balancing tenuously on mast while we tried unsuccessfully to knock it off with our primitive ammunition: giant marshmallows from the Puerto Vallarta Costco.

  • Yesterday while kayaking through the mangroves, our peaceful paddling was interrupted when not one, not two, but an entire school - 30+ little fish - leapt far out of the water, all at the same time, and then landed, as one. A school of jumping fish!

  • Giant child-head-sized toads, it turns out, are NOT just a thing of fantastical children's stories. They live right here in Nicaragua, at Marina Puesto Del Sol, where they hop through the clubhouse and seem even too warted and bloaty to move when we approached them for a photo.

  • And if that's not cool enough for you, Emily's reward for her hard work in the galley of Ohana was being pooped on by a passing bird through an open hatch while making lunch for the rest of the crew. Although the species identification of the dropping was not confirmed, it is possible that it was some sort of revenge for certain airborn marshmallows...who knows.

  • And finally, the capstone, the crown jewel, the piece de resistance in our cache of encounters with wild things, the one that shows, above all, that wildlife has literally been throwing itself at us: during an overnight run last week, we were awoken by a wet slimy stinky guest that apparently wanted to join us in bed - a flying fish had inadvertently, on its commonly several hundred yard cruise through the air, found the 'eye of the needle' and flew into our bunk by way of the porthole - yikes, what a surprise!

From here, it's on to Costa Rica, destination within unknown. But we hope to continue meeting wildlife along the way, and we hear that it's a good place to do it.

Pictures from Ohana and Puerto Vallarta

Because we didn't get a chance to include photos with our last post, here are a few from our time with the Ohana Crew in Puerto Vallarta. We're happy where we are, but miss Tom, Nicole, Chris, and the lifestyle we enjoyed with them greatly!

The Ohana Crew: Chris, Nicole, Tom, Ben, Emily

Every single day, we observe "Sunset Time," where everything stops as we watch the sun sink below an unobstructed horizon. This one is from the Cabo - Puerto Vallarta crossing.
Our evening's entertainment while docked at Paradise Village: Emily grooving center stage with Chris on back-up vocals and Tom on table-top percussion. (Ben is taking a break from lead vocals to take the photo.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Ideal than Ideal

When we started this adventure we had a vague hope that we would find success in the business of jumping from boat to boat, seamlessly winding our way down to Panama in the shortest time possible. Realistically, however, we were pessimistic about the possibility for a flawless trajectory and we expected to have to modify our vision. As it turns out, though, after three weeks of travel, we have found luck and open doors around every corner we have turned.

Our jump from Cabo to Puerto Vallarta had us motoring on the good ship Ohana for two days and one night, arriving and anchoring actually at Punta Mita on the north side of Banderas Bay (home of P.V.). The waves crashing over the bow on the way across exposed a few less than perfect spots in the old crusty caulking seams so we spent the next day drying out and resealing a couple hatches and some hardware on the foredeck. From Punta Mita, after our daily swim and afternoon cocktail, of course, we motored over to La Cruz to refuel and the next day to Paradise Village, both in the general vicinity of Puerto Vallarta.

Paradise Village is aptly named, a pristine resort setting that feels a bit surreal when compared to the un-airconditioned, inner-city hostels that we had imagined ourselves staying at in between rides. Our days here with our Ohana hosts have been active, relaxing and beautiful. After a delicious and casual breakfast, we do some work around the boat. Ben has been working with Tom and Chris to do a variety of boat maintenance; Emily has found happiness beyond her wildest dream - taking total control of the well-stocked galley while Nicole has been home in the states. After lunch we play: along with Tom and Chris we storm the hotel beach volleyball courts and take on the hodgepodge but skilled set of regulars on the court. The sunset finds us body-surfing in the ocean; we follow this with some time in the hotel pool, which has a giant alligator-shaped slide that shoots us out at ferociously high speeds.

We were eager, however, to see the Puerto Vallarta outside of Paradise Village. Our first day in the big city ellicited some quintessential travel learning experiences. The primary point of confusion was a mix-up between the words "El Centro" - the center of town - and "El Central" - the long-distance bus depot we were trying to find. Needless to say, this is an important distinction, especially when compounded by the limits of our minimal spanish abilities. Before we sorted out the confusion, we had ridden five or six buses around town and spent way more money than had we just caught a cab directly to El Central. Oh well - the adventure was well worth it, and we had the opportunity to see more of the town than intended.

While in La Cruz last week, we took advantage of a quiet morning and stalked down our next ride. We had heard of a couple looking for crew to head straight for Panama so we stopped by for a chat. It took about four seconds to realize that we had come to the right place. Not only were Greg and Debbie heading straight for the Canal, hoping to get to the other side by mid-December, perfectly in line with our goals, but they also own a very comfortable, very nice 52-foot Catana catamaran. And they have kayaks onboard. And they have snorkeling equipment. And they have a boat dog. And Debbie owns and runs a restaurant in North Lake Tahoe. And Greg´s last boat was a Melges 32 (a really fast, really fun racing sailboat). So in short, we´ll be taking cooking and sailing lessons for the next month. For something that just fell into our laps, this is going to be a pretty sweet deal.

We meet them in Zihuatanejo on the 19th, so after a couple more days hanging out with Tom and Nicole (and kids!) and Chris (and wife Lyn!), we´ll hop on the bus and take the fourteen hour ride south through the countryside.

From Zihuatanejo, it´ll be a welcomed return to the ocean and the wind - we can only happily rot in port for so long before we feel the pull to leave.

Like always, we´re thinking of everyone back home and we´re so glad you´re checking in. Please continue to keep us in touch with your thoughts and happenings. (Also, did the Damned Yankees win the World Series again?)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cabo San Lucas

Above Bahia Santa Maria:
Emily at the helm:
Ben at the helm with Skipper Mike supervising:

We made it! After 750 miles in varying conditions (sunny and warm to very sunny and hot), 11 sunsets, 6 beach volleyball games won, 4 tuna hooked, and 3 anchorages, we have arrived safely in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

We had a fantastic time aboard Interlude, with an outstanding skipper, a great crew, mostly perfect weather, delicious meals, and plenty of dolphin sitings. The one day bringing intense wind and seas, we were able to tuck into a protected bay for an unplanned anchorage. The rest of the trip brought a steady 15 knots and gentle seas, allowing us to sail and motorsail comfortably, margharita in hand. It also allowed Emily to take the helm and get experience steering the boat down the waves, without danger of catastrophe or spilled cocktails.

We made landings along the way at Bahia Tortuga and Bahia Santa Maria, giving us a chance to spread our legs and join in festivities with the rest of the fleet. The preferred land activity of the Baja Ha Ha sailors is the good old-fashioned Beach Party, complete with cold beers, CCR cover bands, and volleyball. Around dusk, our crew would pile back into our inflatable dinghy and return to Interlude for fresh brownies and evening poker.

Now that we've been thrust into the absurdity of Cabo, the serenity and simplicity of the trip down the coast seems a bit surreal. We've been working, however, on answering some of life's most important questions, namely: ¨Where is the Hard Rock Cafe?¨ Cruise ship passengers are genuinely concerned with getting to the bottom of this immediately upon flooding the city, after which they feel equipped to roam casually through the wilderness of upscale boutiques along ¨Luxury Avenue.¨

Needless to say, we're looking forward to getting back under sail tomorrow evening. This leg has us aboard Ohana, a Gulfstar 47 owned and operated by Tom, freediver and underwater filmographer, and his wife Nicole, who has embraced the cruising lifestyle and has outfitted the boat for their two young children, who will live aboard starting later this month. They have probably the best first mate imaginable - Chris - who runs his own yacht service company in San Diego and has a bottomless supply of cruising stories. Ohana will take us as far as Puerto Vallarta, rumored to be a good passing-through spot for cruising sailboats.

That's all for now! Thanks for all the good wishes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Here We Go!

In Tee-minus 12 hours, Ben, Emily, and crewmates aboard the Interlude will uncleat their lines from the dock and join the parade of boats leaving along the San Diego waterfront, officially signaling the start of the 2009 Baha Ha-Ha Rally. And so will begin Day 1 of Leg of 1 of the Great Adventure.

The food is the stowed and the booze is chilling. Contests have been won, prizes claimed, laundry done, fuel tanks filled, armpits washed, and goodbyes said. We're ready to go.

The crew aboard the Interlude is a sundry cast of characters: Joe, resident comedian and veteran Interlude crewmember; Nick, Joe's nephew and electronics whiz; Darlene, creator of gold medal-winning 'Where's Waldo?' Costumes; and finally our fearless leader Mike, whom we can thank for our aforementioned readiness. Plus, yours truly and yours truly.

Our estimated arrival date into Cabo San Lucas is November 5th. In case we don't have a chance to update, we will be stopping along the way in Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria. We promise to eat well, secure our safety tethers, and take care of each other. Thanks for checking in!

Here are some photos from our time in San Diego:

Aboard the Interlude, Sunday morning (photo by Ben's cousin Brad, who drove 7 hours with his girlfriend Lindsey to have breakfast with us):

Nick, Emily, Joe, Ben, Darlene, and Mike just before winning the Team Costume Dance-Off Competition at the Baha Ha-Ha Kick Off Party:

Monday, October 12, 2009

First Steps...Minnesota Style

First things first, right? Any decent preparation for an adventure brings you to the most unlikely of places. So it is that, two weeks from stepping aboard an ocean-bound sailboat, I am just about as far away from the sea as one can possibly be in North America.

But not crazily unlikely. This is where I'm from - good old Circle Pines - and this is where my family is. I'm here to spend some quality time with them before I leave. And to take advantage of their hospitality - thanks, Ma, for letting me store all my crap in your basement!

And check this out - I get to hang out with my nephew Calder and brand new, not-yet-two-weeks-old niece Delilah...

Cal's favorite things are tractors and goats; Lilah, though you might not be able to see her superfingers, is probably going to be either an incredible basketball player or a piano virtuoso - we'll let her decide.

It's great to be home - to see old friends and to have some free time to take care of some logistical housekeeping and to start delving into the literature about what Emily and I are going to be experiencing in the next few months - Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez and the Lonely Planet's vision of Panama for now.

So I'll take advantage of this responsibilitylessness for another week before I fly into Los Angeles and meet all the movie stars of Emily's hometown - and then the hard work of sailing to the Caribbean begins. It's going to be rough.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A woman, a man, a plan, a Canal, Panama - Namo! wa!

This is the story of Emily and Ben and the Great Adventure before us. We are two Seattleites staring another cold winter in the face - so we're packing up our stuff, quitting our jobs and heading south! We will be traveling mainly by sailboat, working as crew - taking our turns at navigating, driving, cooking and cleaning - in exchange for passage. But don't be surprised to see us riding alongside a chicken coup atop some rural Central American bus; we're flexible (and frugal) in our travel plans!

The grand plan is to sail from San Diego to Panama, eventually reaching the Caribbean side. We will explore Panama and Costa Rica, visiting friends and friends of friends along the way, until we decide we want to move on. Additional destinations are still vague, so stay tuned. Maybe the Lower Antilles? Perhaps a visit to Columbia? We'll have until about February to figure it out, at which time Emily will return home to prepare for her position with the Peace Corps in Senegal starting in March. Then Ben will do who knows what - possibly continuing the Caribbean adventure, sometime crossing the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and France for the summer - we'll see.

As of now, we have a ride from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas on a Catalina 36 MKII named Interlude. Catalina 36's are one of the most common production sailboats in North America and are known for being dependable and having very few bad habits. The leg of the trip will be done with 180+ other boats as part of the annual Baja Ha-Ha Rally ( Sometime during the events, beach parties, and good-natured piracy during the Rally, we hope to connect with another boat heading farther South. And though we hope to make it to the Great Canal with the wind at our backs and as few stops as possible, you never know when we'll find road instead of sea under our feet.

This is a story in the making, and we're glad that you're following along with us. And if you or anyone you know happens to be in or near Caribbean waters between November and January, please let us know!

May your sails always be full,

Ben and Emily

P.S. If the title of this posting confuses you, think: "mom," "racecar," "peep," or "Wo, Nemo! Toss a lasso to me now!"