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A different kind of passage
03/09/2013, Isla Mujeres

I ended my last entry encouraging the armchair sailors to brave the waters. Dave told me that after this passage he is ready to buy a Lazy-Boy. We waited in Providencia for a weather window. The wind howled around the island, but up North the weather was perfect. How to get past the first 100 miles? Then the weather talk turned to a big cold front coming down to the Gulf. Nothing gets cruisers talking more than the potential for a big weather system. Would it really happen? What about the weather until then, could we get an early window? On Tuesday it looked like our next break in the weather would be a week from Thursday. On Wednesday it looked like the next Wednesday. On Thursday we decided Tuesday was the day. Friday came and it looked like the waves would abate early, so we could go on Monday. We noticed a pattern, so on Friday I bought all of our passage supplies, and began prepping the boat, and Dave started our check-out procedure. On Saturday Chris on Marine Weather Service said Sunday things would calm down, and anyone wanting to go north should do so soon. I began to cook. Our original plan was to sail to the Cayman Islands, but with this big weather system coming we wanted to get as far North as possible, plus this big weather system would make the Cayman's ugly. We set our sights for Isla Mujeres. Ahh Mexico.
The first 24 hours were fine, and just what we expected. We sailed most of it, but had to motor between two reefs, because we were heading dead downwind, but had no margin to jibe back and forth. Day two brought worries that we would not reach Isla Mujeres before the weather front. It was blowing 18 from behind, but the genoa wasn't holding the wind. We decided to put up the shoot. What we put up, God took down. We knew the spinnaker was on borrowed time, but we hated to see her split. The second night got interesting, as in 30 knots of interesting. The waves became confused. I had opened some ports down below - we are in the tropics and without air movement things get sauna like - and Dave was sleeping in Kara's bed, when a wave surprised me from the side. It really surprised Dave to have a few gallons of the sea deposited on his head. The rest of the night was a toboggan ride, with about as much success for missing the bumps. All the next day we were watching the winds lighten, wishing we could have kept the 30 knots for one more night. By nightfall we were motoring, and looked longingly at the ripped spinnaker. I got to sail for an hour, but it wasn't very comfortable. The next day Dave found out that his mother was in the hospital, so suddenly getting in meant much more. We were told that we would have a 2-3 knot current with us at Cozumel, but we were still bucking the current. It was only later we learned that we had to be between the mainland and the island to get the free ride. We set our hook a half hour after dark. Dave called and learned that his mom was having angioplasty the next day, and then would go home. Since then we have talked with her and all is fine, she is recovering quickly.
Now we sit in Isla Mujeres, waiting for another weather window. For this next leg we will not have Brandt to take some of the watches, but it shouldn't be too bad, just 300 miles. Who knows maybe this time we will find the Gulf Stream.

How I Tip the Scales
02/20/2013, Isla Providencia

I cried when we left the San Blas. There was a huge mixture of things that set me off: the sleepless night worrying about the upcoming passage and what a terrible mother I am to Kara; saying goodbye to Serendipity; seeing Kara say goodbye to Freddie (yet another boat friendship cut short) and feeling that our cruising days are over, for now we are delivering the boat to Sag Harbor. So I looked at the idyllic islands and cried. I gained perspective as my tears dried. First, we were well prepared for the passage. Our friend Brandt from Seattle had joined us to help bring the boat through the Caribbean, so we have an extra hand, who is a very good sailor, easy to get along with, eats any and doesn't get seasick. I had food in the fridge, so most of my work was already done. Dave, Kara and I took Sturgeron, so our Mal de Mer was unlikely. We had strapped down and protected all of our precious things. I couldn't get back the hours of sleep I missed, but at least I knew I was ready. Then I put my parenting worries on the scales, the day before I was a horrible mother (think Disney mother figures), but the months before that I was pretty good, so maybe the scales are tipped in my favor. I resolved to never give Kara schoolwork the day before we leave for a passage. She may be a week or so behind, but we aren't set on a strict schedule, so what does it matter? Saying goodbye to Serendipity was just plain hard. Just as we were leaving the islands I realized I forgot the frequency of the net we planned to check into. No problem I'll just call Anne and she will know it. She did, but then I realized in a few hours we would be out of range for this kind of help. No midnight chats or 2 AM commiserating about the lack of wind or too much wind. They gave us a video montage of our 17 months together, that I will always treasure. I love cruising and meeting all these new people, but I pay with goodbyes. Again the scales are tipped in my favor, but it hurts when the weight of goodbye lands in the pan. Kara had the double whammy of saying goodbye to Hugh and Anne, plus leaving her friend Freddie. Nine year old Freddie on Shiver became a fast friend, and for two weeks they were a good pair. Freddie would paddle up in his Kayak and take Kara off on an adventure. Or our salon would be transformed with Playmobil, Lego and a fort. To make things really nice, Dave and I liked Freddie's parents Red and Liz, so dinners with the two boats were easy. I hope Kara and Freddie will meet again, either they visiting us in New York, or we seeing them in London. I had the most trouble finding resolution to my final lament. Are our cruising days over, and are we more on a delivery type passage? In some ways this has been true since we decided to head through the Canal. We have been progressing to New York, but with stops and side trips. The San Blas were not on the way, but now our stops will be bumping us along to a new life. We plan to meander through the Chesapeake and maybe go up the Potomac and visit the other Washington, definitely not following the rum line. We have a timeline, and a date we wish to reach Sag Harbor, so maybe that is the difference. All I know is that in my mind things have shifted and I feel more tethers to a land life than cruising. That was the first hour of the 48 hours it took us to get from the San Blas to Isla Providencia. The other 47 hours were much happier. The sailing was exceptional. We sailed at between 45 and 100 degrees off the wind. This means things were comfortable down below, but we were still fast. The swell was six foot, but the frequency was kind, so there was no slamming. Kara and I felt great, Dave is still on medication for his banged up knee, so he didn't have an iron stomach. Dave wanted me to call this entry �"Mama said there'd be days like this, too�" because a sail like this will make any armchair sailor put on foullies and brave the wind and waves. Once again I feel the scales are tipped in my favor.

Kuna Yala
02/06/2013, San Blas Panama

I have dreamed of sailing in the San Blas for twenty years. I knew very little about them, other than that they are isolated islands in the Western Caribbean, where the people are kind, welcoming and the water glorious. I'm ashamed to say that is all I knew until I made Kara read some history of the islands before our arrival. The kind people are the Kuna, an indigenous tribe of Panama, and they call these islands Kuna Yala. When Panama fought for independence the Kuna's remained loyal to Columbia. These passive people held firm and while part of Panama have maintained their own government and language. The Kuna people we have met have been incredibly welcoming and gracious. They come up to our boat in their ulus - dugout canoes - selling fish, lobsters, crabs, fruit, veggies, beer and molas. Molas are the traditional art of the Kuna people. It is part appliqué and part fabric sandwiches. The traditional designs are geometric shapes, but they also have animals and plants incorporated in their art. In Panama City we saw a Santa mola. The women wear shirts with molas front and back. As for isolated, well it is possible to find an empty anchorage, but there are at least 200 boats in the archipelago at the moment, so know that the cruisers have found this haven. We met a boat that has been coming here for 15 years, and is proud of his record of not moving his anchor for two and a half years. Not something I would brag about, but I'm prejudiced against people who don't sail their boats. That is why we have one. The sheer beauty of this area is incredible. The shades of greens and blues seem infinite. The water takes on a chartreuse glow over the reefs, then turquoise over the sand. The marine blue denotes the seagrass and depth is accompanied by navy blue. We have had a fair amount of cloud cover, so at times there is a gray tint to the spectacular blues. When the sun shines then the seascape is without gray or black. The islands have white beaches and palm trees, lots of palm trees. The Kunas sell cocoanuts to the Columbians (also aluminum cans, which we are happy to give and contribute to their economy), so each island holds as many trees as possible. Each cocoanut is recognized to belong to a Kuna family, and so not available for us cruisers. The sailing here is fantastic. The trade winds blow a steady 15 to 20 knots, but we are surrounded by reefs and islands, meaning no big swell or waves. There are anchorages every two miles or so. We have taken to sailing from one end to the other end of the archipelago just because it is so much fun to beam reach in 15 knots. The first time we went to weather here Kara emphatically said �"This is NOT beating!�" She has her mother's aversion to pounding into the waves hours on end. The final piece of this paradise is that there are kids. Yesterday Kara played with a 9 year old boy from Britain, and today it is an 8 year old Australian girl. She is so happy to play with someone who doesn't need prompting. Dave and I try, but our imaginations just don't go in the same direction as hers. I knew so little about this place, and what little I knew was not completely accurate, but it has lived up to my expectations. Dave calls this the apex of cruising.

02/06/2013, Portobelo, Panama

It is hard to write about Portobello, now that we have left. Portobelo holds an important part in Spanish Colonial history. This was where they stored the gold found on the Pacific side of the continents and then trekked across the isthmus - the forty miles of jungle covered hills and valleys. Naturally the pirates knew about the importance of Portobelo, and attacked, often and viciously. So the Spanish built forts, four of them with watch towers, cannons and upper strongholds to hold the gunpowder. The remains of the last set of forts guard the entrance today. The last custom house burnt down, and now there is a replica. Pirates, forts and gold what more could you want to spark your imagination.

Mama said ther'd be days like this...
01/12/2013, Green Turtle Cay, Panama

Yes, my mother did say there would hard days. In my world that means going to weather. In all our sailing, we haven't gone into the wind very much. It is why sailors call it beating.
We left Shelter Bay Marina on a day with moderate Trade Winds (those glorious, predictable winds that made commerce possible during the time before steamships and other mechanically driven boats) and only had 20 miles to go. The Trades were blowing 15 knots with gusts to 20, and to be conservative we went out with a double reefed mainsail. There is a long, long breakwater protecting the entrance to the marina and the anchorage area for the big ships transiting the canal. All was fine behind the breakwater, but as soon as we turned to go out to the open sea we got the full brunt of the waves. The waves were 6-10 feet high, steep and 4 second frequency. This translates to 6 - 10 feet from the bottom of the wave to the top of the wave; steep means just that you climb up fast and go down even faster; frequency is the time from the top of one wave to the top of the next, in our case not enough time to surf down one before we needed to surf up the next. To give you a clear picture, just think of the bow of our boat acting like a needle going through the tops of the waves, and all that water cascading over our home. We hadn't gone to weather in these conditions for a long, long time. Things were not stowed as well as they could have been. Kara's closet door popped open, and out spilled its contents. Not clothes, but knitting, art collections and beads, lots and lots of beads. The locker with the toolbox (the toolbox with the broken clasp) dumped as well. The five gallons of drinking water we keep in the head jumped its restraints and not only saturated the head, but leaked under the door and mixed with all of Kara's things. This is when we decided to go to Isla Naranjo, an anchorage only 10 miles away. We sailed on, beating our way, trying to get the best angle on the waves. The Spinnaker was sitting on deck and began to roll, saved by the netting we installed for Kara when she was a toddler. We anchored in Naranjo, which was a lovely anchorage, and began the clean up. Dave tackled the tools and I took on the beads. If they had been dry I could have swept them up, sent them through a strainer to sort them, and been done, but they were wet. I also couldn't just throw them out, because there are no replacements, and it wasn't Kara's fault that they got loose and went for a swim. Hours later the boat was back to normal.
Day 2, Naranjo to Portobelo, ten miles, the same conditions
Dave tied his locker and Kara's closet closed. There was no fresh water to store in the head. Kara slept in the salon, with the weather clothes in place, so we could get an early start and she would be safe. I stuck a cloth in the hole for the anchor chain. We stored the cushions and spinnaker down below. We were ready, at least we had done all we could think to do. We stuck our nose out there, and it was tough. On one tack it was bearable, but the other set us right into the waves. About the tenth wave on that tack covered our deck with green water, and Kara woke to a deluge. The entire port side of the salon cabintop was dripping. Dave and I cursed the mast step, which leaked, but we thought we had fixed it in El Salvador. We carried on, short tacking along the coast, to minimize our time in the big waves. We finally reached to entrance to Portobelo when I went forward, and realized that our dorades (special airvents for boats) were facing the wrong way and acting like waterscoops. We had maligned the maststep, but really it was our own idiocy. We sailed into Portobelo and tried to anchor, but we dragged. I started to retrieve the anchor and the windlass (the electric winch for the anchor) suddenly started dumping the chain out. We cut the power, and Dave brought it up by hand. We then moved to the edge of the anchorage, and had Kara on the breaker switch to shut the power, we anchored again. I put out extra chain, so we were less likely to drag. Once we were set Dave went to see what was wrong with the windlass, and found our bed soaked. The salon was soaked from the dorad mishap, the v-berth was soaked and the four lockers under our bed were soaked. I would have rather cleaned up the beads. While I cleaned Dave took the windlass apart, and put it together again. It worked just fine, but he hates it when things fix themselves and he hasn't done anything.
We stayed in Portobelo for four days, cleaning up the boat and waiting for better weather. Dave sealed the anchor locker, and we decided to get rid of 125 feet of rusted chain. The Atlantic is much shallower than the Eastern Pacific, so we no longer need 300 feet. This means all of our chain fits in the chain locker.
Time came to stick our nose out again, and this time we had Faralon point between us and the San Blas. We knew we weren't going all the way to the San Blas, 50 miles, but getting around the point would be the hardest part. We motor-sailed around the point in winds 10 to 12 knots, the seas were 8 feet or so. Then we sailed on a loose beat for 10 miles. It actually wasn't a bad sail, until we turned into the anchorage at Green Turtle Bay. All we saw were breakers on reefs. The guidebook was useless, giving no information about the approach to this "smooth anchorage most of the year." Most of the paragraph was about a future marina. We turned around and went back to sea. I read up on the next two anchorages: Miramar - "not enough room to turn the boat or anchor"; Escribanos Bay - "suitable for shallow draft boat or cots". That ended the chapter, the next anchorage was in the San Blas Islands - 35 more miles. We decided to make another approach. We inched our way inside the Northern reef, headed to the anchorage, when we saw the inner reef, a sharp left brought us towards an Eastern reef and two orange balls. We headed to the balls and hoped they weren't fishing net markers. At the balls we found 30 feet of water and things a bit more settle, but there were still breakers on either side. We arrived at the waypoint for the anchorage and found 4 to 6 foot seas and lots of reefs and crashing waves. Serendipity was about an hour behind us, and they were curious to hear what things were like. I came up with a new word "unanchorable." Dave and I tried to call the marina, but no response. We spied the entrance and saw some masts, so we headed into the channel. We had no dock lines nor had we inflated our fenders, but we had to get the boat into flatter water, for each wave had to potential to run us aground. Inside we were directed to a dock and were tied in such a way that the surge was pushing our anchor onto a cleat. It was a nightmare, but the marina manager arrived and retied our lines. I pumped up the last three fenders. We wanted to move, but Serendipity was making their approach and they were the priority now. We had run the gauntlet, poorly, but we had made it, now it was their turn. It must look like the best approach to go between the inner and outer reefs, because Hugh and Anne were following our path. Dave and I directed them further East, and they were able to use the orange buoys to find the channel. Yogi, the marina manager got them settled, and eventually moved us further into the marina between Serendipity and Wildest Dream (David and Gail had a similar experience the day before). The surge is very powerful in this marina, but as long as our six dock lines to put the cushions back in the cockpit.

Our trip through the canal
01/02/2013, Colon, Panama

After all the worry, preparations and work our trip through the canal was pretty dull - just as we wanted it to be. Our crew was great. This was transit number three for Dave from Andiamo and new for Rob and Judy who are crewing for a boat going to New Zealand. The regular crew did just fine as well, and Taking Flight motored like a champ. We picked up our advisor (Gillermo) for the first day right outside Balboa Yacht Club, and then went back to our mooring to wait for our transit time. Plan A was to raft to another sailboat, but they had engine trouble and canceled at the last minute. Plan B was to tie up to a tour boat. Plan C was to center tie alone. Plan D had us with a ferry. And the winner was plan C, which for our crew and boat was the easiest. We used all four of our 150 foot lines we rented from Taxi Tony. We went through the MiraFlores locks with ease. For the Piedro Miguel locks the tour boat caught up to us, and we tied to them. I found this more nerve racking, because their deck was four inches over our deck. We had used double tires as fenders, and that extra thickness is the only reason we didn't lose a station base. I chatted with a couple on the tour who were from New York. I hope they will send me a picture of us sitting in the lock. At 1:00 we were motoring through Gatun Lake, finished locking for the day. I gave everyone lunch, and passed the big test. We had heard that an advisor could request a lunch delivered (costs over $200) if they do not like the food. Gillermo ate heartily, as did the rest of the crew. We arrived at the "cheese ball" (the mooring buoy near the Gatun locks for boats that need two days to transit) just before 5:00 pm. We said goodbye to Gillermo, whose company we thoroughly enjoyed.
The cheese ball was a bit of a disappointment. I had heard of parties and dog walking on the cheese ball, but it is only 6 feet wide. I could barely wiggle on the thing. We had a quiet night with six sleeping in bunks down below - sometimes Flight seems small for the three of us, but she stretches well. The next morning was devoted to lazing about and swimming in the lake. Our second advisor came for us at 2:00, just as we were putting away lunch. Franklin was a very intense advisor, so we didn't get to chat as much with him. This time as we prepared for the locks we only had plans A and B. Plan A was to center tie, and plan B was to tie against the wall. No one liked plan B, since it involved fending our fiberglass hull off the wall, and not suspending the boat. Fortunately they found enough crew on the wall to allow us to center tie. We locked down the three Gatun locks, and each time could see more of the Caribbean.
When we reached Shelter Bay Marina we docked near another kid boat. Kara and Charlotte (age 5) were playing within seconds. Kara could barely pull herself away to say goodbye to Judy (her best friend of the Canal). Tony took crew and lines back to Panama City. The next morning Dave took the tires off the boat, and I hauled them down the dock. When all was done it was as though the transit had never happened. But it did, we took our home from one ocean to another. Wow!

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Taking Flight Adventures
Who: David Rhoades, Ann Sutphen and Kara Rhoades
Port: Seattle, Washington
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