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

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.


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