02 May 2019 | San Vito, Costa Rica
Barbara Johnston | Pleasant during the day, cooler and foggy at night
As we’ve traveled over the past two years, we have continued to run into new holidays and new reasons for government offices to close. We have sometimes found ourselves cooling our heels while the locals are out celebrating.
We were in Panama, wanting to head northwest into Costa Rica. We were mindful that Panama is a Catholic country, and that the Holy Week, before the Easter weekend, is a big deal. Our friends, George and Sue, headed for Puerto Armuelles, in the extreme western part of Panama, so that they could check out of the country before everything closed down for the Easter weekend. We decided we couldn’t make it that far in the time we had, so we aimed for Easter Sunday afternoon, thinking to check out on Monday morning. As it turns out, George and Sue weren’t able to complete all the steps before the offices all closed for the weekend at noon on Thursday. So they were able to offer us lots of information and advice while we made our way to Puerto Armuelles, and we all successfully completed the checkout on Monday morning.
Puerto Armuelles used to have a big banana export business, and their big dock (the “bananero”) was used to load ships with bananas. But for whatever reason, the business went away, and the bananero is following as fast as it can. It used to be that cruising boats could tie their dinghy to the dock and climb a ladder to reach shore. But the last ladder blew away in a storm last month, sheet metal is hanging by a thread, and the dock is falling apart in so many other ways. See photo at the top of this post.
The only way to get ashore is by doing a beach landing. George and Sue took their dinghy ashore that first morning, getting wet and sandy on both the landing and the re-launching. But it turns out that some of the local fishermen operate as water taxis on an unpredictable, ad hoc basis. They know the waters and the waves, so are able to get passengers to shore without a dunking. If you’re lucky, they come by when you need them, or you have a phone number to call. If not, you might wait a long time!
The anchorage at Puerto Armuelles is an open roadstead, and when the south wind rises in the afternoon, there’s a lot of rocking and rolling going on. Fortunately, at night the air is completely calm, so it’s a very good overnight anchorage.
The locals ride bikes or walk out to the end of the dilapidated dock and fish with hand lines while hanging out with friends from dawn to dusk. The fishermen anchor their little boats close to the dock and climb up ropes or parts of ladders pieced together with ropes. At one point on Sunday afternoon, a man walked out on the dock to near where we were anchored and shouted questions at us. It turned out he was the person in charge of the whole customs and immigration process, and he wanted to know whether we needed to check in or check out, even though it was Sunday and excessive fees are charged. I got the gist of it and assured him that Monday would be fine.
George and Sue had arranged transportation with one of the fishermen/water taxis for 9 am Monday morning. Unexpectedly, the little boat arrived at 8:30, and it was a mad scramble to get our papers together and our heads screwed on straight. The beach landing was straightforward and we proceeded to the first office. There was a lot of waiting around, and then we visited at least four other offices in succession, including immigration, customs, health/quarantine and merchant marine (???) Some of the offices were in a very old building with high ceilings and cool interior temperatures. Others had icy air conditioning and were filled with government employees who had clean desks and seemingly nothing to do except look at the screens of their phones. The man who had accosted us from the bananero dock on Sunday was in charge of the whole process. He took us to each office in succession and helped with communications. We had heard some fairly negative things about clearing out in Puerto Armuelles, but that’s not what we found. Only the anchorage and the need to use local transportation to get ashore should give other cruisers pause.
After clearing customs, Julia Max and Sequoia departed immediately for Costa Rica. A long peninsula juts southward and the border between Panama and Costa Rica runs down the spine of the peninsula. We headed south, rounded the tip of the peninsula and then anchored in a big, shallow bight (unnamed) just beyond the tip. We had a terrible time getting the anchor to catch – instead it would just drag across what appeared to be a field of bowling balls. There wasn’t much wind, and not much was predicted, so we finally just decided to accept a less than optimum hold. We ended up about a half mile away from Julia Max. George reported they had good holding with their anchor. We set the anchor alarm and hoped for the best.
The water motion was gentle throughout the evening, but at about midnight a giant wave struck. George reported that he felt a sudden wind, saw a large wave approaching, and then Julia Max was pitched up at a 45 degree angle. The wave washed over the boat, in through open ports and onto a berth and the cabin sole. It threw Sue across the cabin, putting a gash in her forehead.
Sequoia must have been at a different angle to the wave. We experienced extreme rolling, but no wave came over the boat. The giant wave came back every few minutes. We got up and re-stowed or cushioned things that were making a loud clatter. And fortunately, the anchor held.
It’s a mystery what it was. After a few hours the waves stopped, and we were back to a calm night with just gentle rolls. Was it a tsunami? A rogue wave? We searched Google for any report of an earthquake that might have generated a tsunami. None found. We’ll never know.
The next morning we continued north into Golfo Dulce and then into Golfito. It’s a beautiful tropical bay, but beastly hot. Some days there is lightning in the hills and some days a heavy rain shower.
We’re here in Golfito to await the arrival of the MV Kraszewski, which will load up Sequoia and Julia Max and deliver the two boats to Victoria, BC. We presently expect the ship on about May 15, two weeks from now.
So, you may ask, why aren’t we sailing Sequoia all the way home? We had intended to sail to Hawaii, and from Hawaii to Portland. But the more we thought about the 30-day passage between here and Hawaii, the less we wanted to do it. Going northwest along the Central American, Mexican, California and Oregon coasts is not really an option because there are almost always very strong winds blowing in the opposite direction for much of the trip. It’s a bash that beats the stuffing out of sailors and their boats. It can be done but it doesn’t meet our definition of fun (and this is supposed to be a fun trip). Additionally, we’ve been having serious issues with our only-two-years-old electronic instruments which we are not wanting to test against the Pacific Ocean.
Then, of course there is the attraction of spending the summer in the Pacific Northwest, which is very much a special time of year. And since we’ve made this decision, I’ve signed up for three week-long chamber music workshops this summer (including one in Romania) which I’m very much looking forward to.
The coast of Costa Rica is unreasonably hot this time of year. We understand that the rainy season starts at the end of May, and that it will become generally a bit cooler at that time. But for now, the air is stagnant, temperatures are in the nineties every day, and humidity is 65-70% We find ourselves unable to do anything productive, other than the minimum required to keep ourselves fed and bathed (showers are very popular!)
So yesterday we and the Stonecliffes rented a car and drove up into the mountains, where it is considerably cooler during the day, and downright cold and foggy at night. We’re staying at a lovely Bed & Breakfast, called Casa Botania, in the middle of tropical jungle near the town of San Vito. There is an abundance of birds and flowers here. We’ve visited the Wilson Botanic Gardens, a major tropical research center, and we have plans to visit a coffee plantation, perhaps an indigenous art and culture center, and just hang out in these cooler temperatures. After a few days here and a couple of days back at the boat, we have plans to spend three nights at a beach resort – air conditioned! When we return to Golfito, we’lll have 4-6 days to get the boat ready for shipment.
So look for us in Portland before the end of May. We’ll need to make a quick trip up to Victoria to receive Sequoia off the freighter, and then we should have her home by mid-June.
Best wishes to all our friends and family,
Craig & Barbara Johnston