Horizons Travelblogue

Sailing vessel Horizons, a Tayana 37 cutter, has been cruising the West Coast of Mexico and Central America for the past 9 years. This is the ongoing story.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Low Tides in the Yacht Club

Tony caught the 1230 hrs bus from downtown Puntarenas to Alajuela and the airport for his flight later that evening. On my return to the boat after seeing him off at the bus station, I was quite dismayed to see that Horizons was aground on her moorings. The bow was tilted down and the boat was leaning to starboard. The weight of the boat seemed to be on the aft part of the keel and, worryingly, on the rudder. The shallower water seemed to be at the aft. With a draft of 6 feet, I measured only about 4'9" of water at the stern of the boat.

We were going through several days of minus (unusually low) tides. Not all boats in the Yacht Club were affected, and I hadn’t expected that Horizons would be in a location where a low tide would result in a grounding. I requested to be moved to where the water was a bit deeper but it didn’t happen for a couple of days. So I was again aground the following day, although not quite as badly. I finally got moved on a subsequent high tide to a moored floating platform where I was tied alongside in the same way as to a dock. I’m still there. One bonus over the simple mooring is that the platform has a piped supply of potable water, which makes filling my water tank very easy.

I now thought that my problems with low tides were over. But I was wrong. Another boat was (and still is) tied up on the other side of my floating platform. During the next period of minus tides at the end of January, I discovered that my neighbouring boat had a deeper draft than Horizons – one foot deeper. Consequently, as the tide continued to ebb to the minus level, my neighbouring boat began to lean over in the direction of Horizons when its keel hit bottom. This leaning continued to increase in severity as the tide continued to ebb, and I became quite concerned as the mast of this boat leaned closer and closer towards Horizons’ mast.

At one point, the instruments at the top of this neighbouring boat were only inches from the instruments at the top of Horizons’ mast. And the tide continued to ebb. It now appeared that the masts would not come into contact. But as the neighbouring mast continued to lean further, it now became a threat to Horizons’ backstay (the wire cable which supports the mast from the rear). The only solution was to try to move Horizons forward on the platform, against the tidal current, to increase the distance between the backstay and the neighbour’s increasingly leaning mast. If the keel of Horizons had been resting on the bottom, this would not have been possible. Fortunately, the manoeuvre was accomplished and Horizons was secured in a position with much more clearance between the masts. There was still a safe distance remaining between mast and backstay when the tide turned.

On the following high tide, Yacht Club staff also moved and secured the neighbouring boat a little further back on the platform, giving even more clearance between the masts. The consequence of this was that the repositioning of this boat’s keel in relation to the bottom caused the boat to then lean over in the opposite direction on the subsequent low tide. This was good news for the masts, but it caused that boat’s dock lines to drag the platform askew of the rapidly ebbing tide. This resulted in Horizons being pressed up tightly against its side of the platform, squashing all the protective fenders as flat as pancakes. But the fenders of the other boat had been pulled up above the level of the platform due to the leaning angle, and the scraping and squeaking of that boat’s hull against the platform were not pleasant sounds to listen to.

Further down the estuary can be seen the effects of the low tide on some other boats.

Forward into 2006

The reason I’ve been living on a 37 foot sailing boat for 8 years and am presently cruising in Costa Rica goes back to 1993. That is the year when my old friend Tony (I think he still prefers to be called Anthony) invited me to join with him and a couple of his other friends on a two week charter of a sail boat on the south west coast of Turkey. A new experience! Something I’d not done before. I was a complete novice, although I had been a passenger on a sail boat on a couple of occasions years before. Great idea! I jumped at the chance.

What a place to have your introduction to cruising. The Turkish coast was magnificent, both culturally and geographically. My experience sailing in this area was like having a door open into a completely new universe. I was hooked. From then on, I absorbed everything I could about sailing and particularly cruising. I took sailing courses and later took a sabbatical from work which enabled me to experience sailing across the Atlantic as crew, between Florida and Gibraltar. That voyage convinced me as to the kind of boat I wanted to own – an offshore cruising boat. Horizons appeared on the horizon in January 1998, only about four months after my return from my sabbatical.

Tony earned his Horizons crew shirt in the first summer I owned the boat, on a trip to Desolation Sound north of Vancouver. He again joined Carol and I on a subsequent trip up the inside passage to the northern part of Vancouver Island. And he was wearing that Horizons shirt when he climbed aboard at my mooring in the Costa Rica Yacht Club at approximately the appointed hour on Boxing Day.

The following day we went shopping to add to the on board provisions. We then left the Yacht Club on the 28th, after topping up the water tank, and crossed over to a very peaceful anchorage in a well protected bay on Isla San Lucas, only about 4 miles from Puntarenas in the Gulf of Nicoya. It is a former prison island which has largely been abandoned. I think that there are a few people remaining on the island, but there seem to be more howler monkeys. They reach full voice in the early mornings and in the evenings. We could hear them in the trees, but we couldn’t see them.

Other than the rusting hulk of an old wreck jutting out of the water in the middle of the bay, the only other boat in the anchorage was Gitano del Mar. We spent a peaceful relaxing first day there and didn't do much except that I repaired the non-functioning windlass “Up” button on the foredeck. More relaxing in the cockpit the next day, except for the time I spent tracking down and resolving a problem in the electrical circuit of the cabin fan. (A boat owner’s work is never done.) The new cabin fan brought by Tony was now functional.

One of the pleasant aspects of having guests visit the boat is the introduction of imported new menus. As I tended to be the early bird each morning, I looked after the coffee grinding and brewing, as well as the breakfasts. Tony took care of the dinner menus. I’ve now added some of his menus to my own repertoire. My favourite was chicken stew – only one pot to wash up!

From Isla San Lucas, we then moved on south down the Gulf to Bahia Ballena, motoring all the way. No useable wind, and then wind on the nose in short, choppy seas. There were about 6 other cruising boats there during our stay, which was the most we saw throughout the whole trip. It's a very large bay but still very rural. It also has access to some interesting places nearby, which I'll try to visit when I go back there. We went to shore several times, a couple of times by rowing, and then by motor after I finally got the outboard out of the lazarette, connected it to the new gas tank and got it working again.

On New Year's Eve, we went out for dinner with the other cruisers to a really nice Italian restaurant run by a couple of genuine Italian-minted Italians. The other cruisers were Dwight & Jan, of Mira, Philip & Leslie, of Carina, Jay & Danica, of Alkehest, and Bruce, of 5th Element. The occasion was also the 61st birthday of Philip, of Carina, so we celebrated that as well by (with the aid of some accessories) making Philip look ridiculous for the cameras. The food was good and very reasonable in cost. As seems to be usual, the wine ended up costing more than the food! However, we all returned to our boats before midnight - cruisers don't seem to be a late night lot. Small fireworks were let off at midnight in various places on shore, including a couple of resorts in the bay. We could even see some fireworks across on the other side of the Gulf on the mainland.

We had a good sail a couple of days later from Bahia Ballena to Bahia Herradura, on the mainland side of the Gulf. All three sails were flying. The wind was steady and from a good direction and the seas were quite calm. It was sunny, and we had an ideal wind driven crossing. Bahia Herradura is a medium sized bay - much smaller than Ballena. There is also a very high priced marina on the northern edge of the bay.

With the crew of Mira, Jan and Dwight, who had arrived there the day before us, we dinghied to the marina with the intention of taking the bus to a nearby town to do some shopping. But the marina wanted us to pay $40 US to leave the dinghy at the dinghy dock for the day. So we declined the opportunity. We were told that a panga guy on the beach could ferry us to our boat from the beach. Mira dinghied back to their boat and Tony & I went to some nearby shops for some groceries and beer. The panga guy took us back to Horizons alright - about a 3 minute ride - for 5,000 colones, which is $10 US! They are positively highway robbers in Herradura. But we had a nice dinner and social on cruising boat 5th Element that evening. Bruce, a single hander, had caught a large dorado that morning on his way across the Gulf to Herradura. He grilled the fish and the rest of us added the other ingredients in a pot luck.

Our last full day out in the Gulf was a 27 mile trip from Herradura to the anchorage we'd started out in at Isla San Lucas. Not much useable wind until we were about two thirds of the way there, when it got quite strong - again on the nose (starboard nostril) - with short choppy seas. This slowed us down quite a bit, and with the currents also introduced a significant 15 to 20 degrees of leeway. It was a bit of a push keeping the boat on the correct course and getting around to the leeward side of the island. Later that evening, in the calm but windy anchorage, it was gusting frequently between 30 and 40 knots and I even recorded one gust at 45 knots. But by dinner time it eased off and we had a comfortable night.

The short trip the next morning into Puntarenas was quite routine and we got into the Yacht Club on the morning high tide. It was a relief that the winds had moderated overnight, as I had been a little worried that continued strong winds might have prevented us from getting back into the Yacht Club that day. Tony’s return flight to Canada was that evening and even a short delay might have resulted in him missing the flight, as a short delay would have meant missing the high tide. The Yacht Club can only be entered on a high tide.

Playa Panama to Puntarenas, Costa Rica

The Costa Rica Yacht Club in Puntarenas was to be the rendezvous point with Tony on Boxing Day. So it was time to set about getting there. Pleasant though it was, I left Playa Panama on December 20th to cover the 140+ nautical miles to Puntarenas via day sails. My first overnight stop was to be Bahia Potrero, at the outer north western beginnings of the Nicoya Peninsula. This was to be one of my shortest hops, being only 18 miles. But suitable anchorages are relatively few along this stretch of the coast, so it’s a matter of picking the most practical ones for making the best use of the daylight on each leg.

The wind was a bit of a tease for the beginning of this leg, giving me a good sailing breeze as I passed Playas del Coco. I was able to get all my three sails up and flying, and was doing between 6 and 7 knots without the sound of any engine interfering with the experience. I still had all my sails flying as Mira passed me going in the opposite direction. Dwight and Jan had been anchored in Bahia Guacamaya (I always seem to call it Bahia Guacamole) a short distance to the south, and were headed back to Playas del Coco to reprovision at the excellent supermarket. It was nice to hear Jan say on the VHF radio during our chat how “pretty” Horizons looked with all sails flying.

But the breeze did not last. Like having your date close the door in your face after walking her home, the wind departed about the time I was rounding Islas Brumel, where I was to change course for my Bahia Potrero destination. So I had to furl the sails and start burning diesel fuel again, all the way to the anchorage.

The next hop was to be the longest, at 56 NM, so I was up shortly after 0400 hrs the following morning and underway at 0515 hrs. It was still dark. But a little over an hour later, after sunrise, I was entertained by numerous manta rays jumping out of the water and flipping over like pancakes before hitting the water with a loud splat. There was no wind and I seemed to be pushing into a current of about 1 knot or more, as my boat speed over ground (as opposed to through the water) was slow for the 2500 rpm the crankshaft was turning at.

From about 0930 hrs I did manage to get an hour of sailing without the need for assistance from the engine. But for the rest of the way to Bahia Carrillo, my next anchorage, the engine was the primary source of boat progress. Bahia Carrillo is not an ideal anchorage when the winds or swells are from a southerly direction, as the bay is open to the south. Consequently, the swells roll right into the anchorage causing the boats seeking refuge there to rock and roll quite uncomfortably. And so it proved for a while, after my arrival. I dropped anchor at about 1700 hrs in the most westerly part of the bay, hoping to get some protection from a reef which extends partly across the mouth of the bay from the western point. And to some extent, it worked.

As it was getting dark, Moonsong arrived and anchored closer to the centre of the bay. Moonsong had been anchored close to me in Bahia Potrero the night before, but left after I did. Once they were securely anchored, Nola called me on the VHF radio and invited me over for “happy hour”. Nobody turns down such invitations. As their dinghy was already in the water (as they had been towing it), and mine wasn’t, Gerry picked me up and we had a very enjoyable social evening which included dinner. But their location seemed to be rather more rolly than where Horizons was anchored.

The next hop was to be only 47 NM, so I was able to have a comfortably late 0630 hrs departure. For non-boaters, the usual ritual before starting up the engine each time is to check the coolant level (ie. anti freeze equivalent), oil level via the dipstick, tightness of water pump/alternator belt (like the fan belt) and (for me) to wipe up the oil drips from the drip tray under the engine. On this occasion, I decided to install another water pump/alternator belt as the old one seemed to be quite worn - leaving black rubber dust on parts of the engine - and was constantly slacking off, requiring me to adjust the alternator each time.

After another brief tease of breeze, it was to be another day of burning petroleum products. At least it slows the onset of UV degradation of the sails. This leg was to take me in a south easterly direction to the southern point of the Nicoya Peninsula at Cabo Blanco and then north east to Bahia Ballena. I’d again left ahead of Moonsong, but as I was closing in on Cabo Blanco and the rocky island just off its point, I saw them behind and gaining on me. Moonsong is a bigger boat with a longer waterline than Horizons, which means that it has a faster speed through the water than Horizons. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I made a wide sweep around Isla Cabo Blanco to give it lots of clearance, and Moonsong cut inside of me, closer to the island, and passed me. There were strong head currents – probably 2 to 3 knots - at the point, so this was not a high speed rounding. But the water was almost glassy calm.

Isla Cabo Blanco is merely a large lump of rock with a rare navigation light tower at its highest point and a lot of guano over much of its surface. It’s actually quite dramatic in appearance – almost hypnotic. But best steered clear of.

Bahia Ballena is an expansive bay, open to the south east. Long sandy beaches skirt the head of the bay, with rocky shorelines on either side of the general horseshoe shape. The primary anchoring area is in the southern area, off Playa Tambor. There are a number of small shops and restaurants in Tambor, with some low key but posh hotels and resorts scattered around various other parts of the bay. On the south shore near a cluster of shanty-looking structures is an old and run down concrete dock which juts out into the bay. Moored around this pier in a network of mooring lines are numerous small boats used by local fishermen - sorry, fishers (in my four years in Mexico and Central America, I've yet to see a female "fisher"). On my subsequent return to Bahia Ballena with Tony, we found it to be an almost impossible place to land by dinghy, and we resorted to the time honoured practice of maneuvering through the surf and landing on the beach.

I dropped anchor at about 1530 off Playa Tambor for the night and then rewarded myself with a beer and the last of the taco chips and salsa. The last leg of the trip to Puntarenas was only a little over 20 NM, so I was able to have a much more relaxing morning before leaving Bahia Ballena at about 1015 hrs the next day. The Costa Rica Yacht Club is a few miles down the estuary which runs to the north of the long peninsula of Puntarenas. But there is a problem of access due to the shallowness of the channel. It’s therefore necessary to enter only at high tide.

But my timing for hitting the high tide travelling directly from Bahia Ballena was bad, as the first of the day was early in the morning and the second high tide was in the early evening after dark. So my plan was to anchor outside Puntarenas overnight in the location indicated in the cruising guide and to get the Yacht Club panga guide to lead me in on the high tide the following morning. A simple and effective plan.

But after rounding Islas Negritos, islands jutting out into the Gulf, my trip up the Gulf of Nicoya during the afternoon was in a building tail wind (from the south). By the time I got to Puntarenas, the wind was pretty brisk and, more importantly, the seas were very choppy and bouncy, with 4 foot close-together rollers passing through the area where I'd planned to anchor. So it was impossible to drop my hook there, and there were no alternatives in the vicinity. So I called the Yacht Club asking where I could stop for the night. They told me to go down the first part of the channel in the estuary as far as the area behind the market and wait there and they would send a panga to help me.

When I got there, they told me that the panga would not be there for another hour. So I had to turn around and point into the flood tidal current and hover there in the channel. The panga didn't arrive for about another hour and twenty minutes, by which time it was getting quite dark. I followed the panga into the darkness down the shallow channel, which was not helped by the fact that the panga guy didn't have a light. So it was difficult to see where he was at times.

When we approached the mooring area of the Yacht Club, the darkness was punctuated by lots of bright lights on shore which were also reflected in the water. So it was very difficult to see anything in the glare. The panga driver didn't speak English, so I didn't know what he wanted me to do or where he wanted me to go. There was some confusion before I finally saw something in the water nearby - a mooring buoy. With hand signs and much waving, I finally got the idea. But maneuvering my heavy long-keeled boat in the current in narrow confines was not a snap.

I passed my mooring lines to the guy in the panga, who was now being helped by another panga guy. We finally got the stern line secured to one mooring buoy and then the forward line to a second mooring buoy. It was one of the most awkward and confusing arrivals I've made anywhere – and a predictable demonstration of why I didn’t want to arrive there in the dark.

The panga guy took me ashore to check in at the Yacht Club office. I met some other cruisers in the restaurant that I'd previously encountered and we had dinner and some beers while we caught up with our news.

One of the constant underway problems I have is storage of my dinghy. Most cruising boats store them on the foredeck, between the mast and the forestay. But I also have a staysail stay, and the staysail is on a boom. So this takes up the space which otherwise would be used for storing the dinghy. So what I have to do is deflate and roll up the dinghy and stow it on the floor of the main saloon, along with its plywood floorboards. This takes up a lot of space down below.

Since the problem with the disintegrating stitching my genoa, I was having the additional difficulty of storage of this huge sail. Rolled up and enclosed in its sail bag, it was too big to fit in any of the lockers. The Yankee which was temporarily replacing it is much smaller and there was insufficient space in its locker. So when I was at anchor, the genoa was having to sit in the aft part of the cockpit out of the way. When under way, it was joining the dinghy in the main saloon. So the main saloon was an obstacle course when underway. The first order of the day following my arrival at the Yacht Club was to heave these two items out on deck.

I spent much of Christmas Day cleaning up the boat and lemon oiling the cabinetry in preparation for the arrival from Canada of Tony on Boxing Day. I may even have listened to one of my two Christmas CD’s. My Christmas presents were going to be a day late, as Tony was going to be bringing me various needed items from Canada, mainly for the boat. But Christmas dinner was shared in the afternoon in the Yacht Club restaurant by all the cruisers present, which included the crews of Music, Windsong, Gitano del Mar and Today, with Horizons completing the group.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Puntarenas, Costa Rica

January 31st, 2006

09º 58.95' N, 084º 47.81' W

Horizons and I are now sitting somewhat comfortably and safely in the mooring area of the Costa Rica Yacht Club in Puntarenas, on the mainland side of the Gulf of Nicoya. It’s been a relatively active several weeks since my time in Playas del Coco. My stitch- challenged genoa leech tape has been restitched and various other maintenance items having been taken care of.

One of my spare jibs, called a Yankee by salty types, got me to Puntarenas from Playas del Coco, in the absence of my ailing genoa (see one of my earlier postings). This Yankee sail is a much smaller jib and is cut quite high above the deck. It is designed to be deployed along with the staysail, which is also a small jib carried a little behind the Yankee. The Yankee and staysail together don’t provide as much power as my big genoa. But they are better suited to stronger winds, when a full genoa would be too much sail area to carry.

While I remained at anchor at Playas del Coco, Philip, of Carina, again controlled the bosun’s chair halyard and helped me to reinstall the set screws in the forestay extrusion tubes. I was then able to put the Yankee onto the roller furling gear and roll it up – a relatively simple job. Except that I then discovered that I needed to make a pennant (connecting line) to connect the head (top) of the sail with the furling gear swivel near the top of the mast as the Yankee’s luff (leading edge of the sail) was about four feet shorter than the luff of the genoa.

I ended up making a temporary pennant from some spare rope, which performed well until I got to Puntarenas. After receiving needed parts brought from Canada by my Christmas visitor, Tony, and with help from Dwight (of Mira) and his crimping press, I was able to make a proper wire pennant.

(This paragraph is for boaters only. Other readers can jump directly to the next paragraph.) Another consequence of all my trips to the top of the mast was that I discovered that the professional (in the sense that they did this job for money) riggers in Vancouver who originally had installed my roller furling gear had installed one of the components incorrectly. In brief, the halyard wrap stop component (the black round object near the top of the photo) is supposed to be installed near the top of the forestay extrusions in such a position that the blue coloured link plate attached to the swivel (which holds the top of the sail) is adjacent to it, to prevent the halyard attached to the link plate on the swivel housing from wrapping around the forestay when the sail is being furled (rolled up). The riggers who installed my furling gear fitted the halyard wrap stop device about twelve inches too high. The link plate therefore is too low when the halyard is tightened and can’t be raised any higher. It can’t connect with the halyard wrap stop device. Therefore, it is the knot in the halyard which is adjacent to the wrap stop device performing the wrap stop function rather than the link plate.

I liked Playas del Coco, particularly for the wide variety of things in its well stocked supermarket. The anchorage was a bit rolly from time to time, but I didn’t get too wet landing on the beach through the surf in my dinghy. Security is a problem in Costa Rica, so I chained the dinghy to a palm tree each time I went to shore. I also carried my oars with me rather than leaving them in the dinghy, which was rather less than convenient. But the guy in the Internet café let me leave the oars in his care until I was ready to row back to the boat.

Just in case any non-cruisers out there are unaware of it, water is very heavy. I carried 15 gallons of it from a tap near the beach to my dinghy on the beach, and then to the tidal line down the beach. The tide was not high. The beach was expansive. Then I dragged my dinghy down to and past the water line. Then I loaded the 15 gallons. Then I dragged the now even heavier dinghy from its water line beach location through the surf into deeper water. Refreshed by these exertions, I then rowed against the wind back to Horizons. Lifting the 15 gallons up to the deck from the dinghy was a minor detail in comparison. I was ready for that first cold beer onboard!

Bahia Huevos is a beautiful and peaceful anchorage only about 7 miles from Playas del Coco. That’s where I motored to on December 17th. There was only one other cruising boat anchored there on my arrival. The bay is a haven of tranquility. Only the sounds of the birds, and the howler monkeys on shore. And the sunsets are magnificent.

The water was very clear and it was a good opportunity to dive under the boat for a look-see. The propeller had a lot of tiny barnacles developing, which probably partly accounted for my slow progress under engine power from Playas del Coco. I scraped the three prop blades clean. I also set about doing the same for the rest of the hull, a job I completed the next day. I’ll be really glad when I can get a couple of new coats of anti fouling bottom paint on the hull. Although I suppose I need the exercise, scraping the hull is quite tiring work. But a few cold beers and nibblies are good reward after it’s done.

The next day, a number of other cruising boats began showing up, until the total numbered seven. December 18th is also my father’s birthday. He reached his 86th this year. So I was able to toast his health during Happy Hour. I hope that he had more energy than me on that day. I had defrosted some fish for dinner, but fell asleep at the dinette table before I had a chance to cook it. As I said, scraping the hull is quite tiring work.

Huevos is the Spanish word for eggs. Bahia Huevos is named for a couple of egg shaped islets at its entrance. The next morning, after having scrambled huevos on toast, I upped anchor and motored to another nearby anchorage. Playa Panama is only 6 miles from Bahia Huevos. I had rounded the prominent islet rock of Viradores Norte and was making good progress at about 5.5 knots for a short time (what a difference a clean propeller makes) when a squally headwind of about 20 – 25 knots was suddenly in my face along with disagreeable and most unhelpful waves, dropping my speed down to about 3 knots – and occasionally to 2 knots. Fortunately, it wasn’t far to the anchorage. The wind whistled through the anchorage for a while, but the water was calm and the holding for the anchor was good.

There is some development around the bay at Playa Panama, with a condominium complex on the north edge and some small but modest and discrete tourist clusters, mostly hidden in the trees. So it lacked the serenity and isolation of Bahia Huevos. But it was quite protected from north and east winds although totally open from the west.

The Christmas spirit was something I had not yet gotten into, in spite of it only being a week to go. One of the advantages of cruising is that you never get into the annual shopping mall Christmas frenzy. Temperatures in excess of 30º C in palm tree environments also don’t promote the traditional festive mood. So when my cassette stereo player became brain dead, I was considering e-mailing my soon-to-arrive visitor from Canada, Tony, that he would be pleased to know that he would not have the benefit of my Christmas tapes during his stay. So it would indeed be a silent night. However, I did experiment with a hand held cassette recorder coupled to a pair of computer external speakers. It worked, in a sense. But I decided not to be cruel and retired the arrangement without any further word.

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