The Pacific North-West to Panama
May 1983 to March 1984
The Pacific Northwest
We had had a long, cold sail across the North Pacific from Hawaii to Canada, three May weeks at sea in our 37ft sloop, “Cera”, but were welcomed by the sun as we anchored in the charming harbour in the middle of Victoria, British Colombia, at the south end of Vancouver Island. Our arrival coincided with the end of the annual harbour festival there, and with a yacht race with 400 entries, so we were treated to harbourside bands, aerobatic displays, fireworks – and record-breaking high temperatures which had all the locals complaining. Perhaps all we had heard about the cool, wet weather of the Pacific Northwest had been exaggerated? Unfortunately, as the weeks went by, the gloomier forecasts were in fact vindicated, with even the local people conceding that it was a poor summer. However, a side benefit for us was that the absolutely gorgeous, sheltered anchorages of the Gulf Islands, the Strait of Georgia and Desolation Sound were generally uncrowded and peaceful, contrary to expectation and advice.
Victoria is the capital city of the Province of B.C., and we were anchored right by the marvellously Victorian buildings of the BC Parliament and the old Empress Hotel. We enjoyed wandering round such places as well as the superb museums, one of which has Guzzwell’s tiny “Trekka” and Voss’s “Tilikum”, the schooner rigged Indian war canoe which Voss sailed from Victoria to London via Australia around the turn of the century. We were fascinated to learn that Voss’s first stop on that voyage had been at Penrhyn Island in the Central Pacific where we had spent so many happy weeks, and that his main fear on approaching it had been of the natives, who were described as “man-eating savages” in his sailing directions! In the event, he was made as welcome as we were, 82 years later.
Victoria is a lovely little city, playing up its English / Scottish heritage for the tourists a bit, but in a generally inoffensive manner. To see afternoon tea being taken at the old Empress Hotel, right at the waterfront, was to take me back to the same ceremony at the Station Hotel in Edinburgh, where I used to stay with my parents what seemed like a millennium ago. The BC museum is in a new building in Victoria, and is one of the most beautifully assembled and presented collections we have seen. It was an excellent introduction to the history (European and pre-European) of the Pacific Northwest.
The short-lived heat wave was already receding as we sailed for Vancouver via some of the Gulf Islands, shrouded in mist, and it was cool by the time we came to our berth at the Vancouver Rowing Club. This lives in Stanley Park in the heart of this stately city. We spent many happy days ashore with our relatives Don and Ruth Matheson, and friends Duncan and Cathy McPherson, and also tried to get stuck into some work on the boat, including the fitting of a much-needed cabin heater (which would have been a godsend on the passage from Hawaii).
Leaving Vancouver, we worked our way north via some of the lovely anchorages on the east side of the Strait of Georgia, with evocative names like Snug Cove, Smugglers Cove, Secret Cove and Blind Bay, and relished the magnificent scenery which (when we could see it) was an array of rocky, tree-fringed bays, backed by heavily wooded hills, all overshadowed by grand, snow-capped mountain ranges.
In most anchorages we were by ourselves, and were visited by an incredible variety of wild life. This was a particularly satisfying aspect of our time in Canada, to see so many different animals and birds. Deer in the mossy woods were commonplace. In the wild we saw a black bear berry-picking on a mossy knoll by the shore, and I managed to get a telephoto shot of him from the dinghy before he lolloped off into the trees. Around the boat at anchorage it was commonplace to see seals and, delightful in their play, otters in small, shy groups. Scores of magnificent bald eagles soared overhead. The “bald” (actually, a white-headed ) sea eagle is common here, in contrast to the United States, where it is their national emblem. Later on our trip inland, we saw and photographed a magnificent bull elk, plus many others of the deer/wapiti family, and enjoyed the company of a wide variety of squirrels and squirrel-like ground-dwelling mammals at our camp sites.
We went as far north as an area named by Captain Vancouver (on what was obviously a bad day) Desolation Sound. He had the same conditions as us – constant overcast, much drizzle, often poor visibility. We found the fiord-like inlets to be thick with cold, low clouds. But we were happy enough to stay quiet and explore at great leisure one of the world’s beauty spots. Cera’s motor did get a lot of use, a contrast to the windy Pacific; one would have to be supremely patient to cruise up there without one, and much of the time we did as the local sailors did and powered everywhere, sometimes with the mainsail up “for decoration”, as Norma said.
The weather prevented us going as far north as we might have liked, because the fiords become steeper and snowier further up. Still, the inlets we did see were sufficiently fiord-like to be satisfying, and the snow-capped mountains emerged as a backdrop at intervals. It was the “micro-scenery” which was, rather surprisingly, so gorgeous – an amazing array of greenery, millions of rocky promontories and islets, wild flowers and wild life.
Norma went into full hunter-provider mode in these waters. This part of the world is renowned for its wild berries. They grow by the million and in wide variety, and before leaving the area Norma had made 16 bottles of blackberry jam and preserved several more jars of delicious fruit, when not threatening the local seafood population. There are as many clams as you want to take, crabs walk into the pot five or six at a time, and bottom fish – particularly a local form of rock cod, which the people there rather scorn – are usually pretty easy to catch. Once we found out how, we landed a few salmon – the fish in these waters of course, and delicious (but not we thought, quite as good as the Atlantic salmon, its close relative.)
The seafood was so abundant that once again we became almost self-sufficient. The fishing required some work, especially if the aim was salmon, but we nearly always caught enough for us. Red rock crab were so numerous that we generally had to shake some off the outside of the pot before selecting only the biggest to keep, and there were thousands of clams and oysters for the taking within yards of most of the anchorages. “Red tide”, or paralytic shellfish poisoning, is a problem in the summer, but we followed local advice and custom rather than the very pessimistic warnings put out by the authorities, and had no problems.
Working our way back down towards Vancouver we joined up with Duncan and Cathy and their family in their Tartan 41 and shared anchorages with them at Lasqueti Island and in the Gulf Islands as the sun shone during what turned out to be the best two weeks’ weather of the summer. We found the long evenings to be the loveliest time of the day, as the slow-setting sun cast long shadows from the pines and lit the glassy waters of the coves with soft pastel blues and pinks.
Back in Vancouver, this time with “Cera” ensconced at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, we were lent by Don and Ruth their luxurious Pontiac station wagon and took off for a camping trip of the Rockies and the nearer parts of Alberta. This was a hugely enjoyable change from life on the ocean wave. The Rockies were breathtaking, and we drove the most scenic route, the Icefields Parkway, in both directions. There was little snow except on the highest peaks, but we commonly camped within sight of the snow line at one of the marvellous camp sites of the Canadian National Park system, where piles of wood are provided for the essential camp fire and where stern warnings are given about leaving out food which might attract bears. We hiked on the Athabasca Galcier, approached within feet of an enormous elk, and took innumerable photos of craggy mountains reflected in glassy, glacial lakes.
The camp sites in the National and State Parks are the best we have ever been to – plenty of space, each site with a picnic table and fireplace, plenty of firewood (which is certainly needed; one night we camped at the level of the bottom of a glacier). The prairie country was looking very good, with hay being made and much of the wheat about ready to harvest – the countryside between Calgary and Edmonton, in Alberta, we found to be strongly reminiscent of that around Orange, NSW.
As expected, we got on famously with the Canadian people. They are aggressively nationalistic, close to paranoid about Big Brother USA, much more akin to the Australasians and British than the Americans (of whom they casually speak in highly disparaging terms!) In general attitude they are closely related to the Kiwis, we thought, even to the extent that their view of the USA is much the same as the New Zealanders’ view of Australia! In summary, we found it to be a cardinal sin to confuse a Canadian with an American, and we had to be very careful because they can’t understand why we can’t tell the difference from the accent!
But too soon we were well into August, and it was time to be getting to sea again. First, we took in a very quick pass through the American San Juan Islands at the mouth of Puget Sound. These are geographically similar to the Canadian Gulf Islands, but quite different to visit – much more developed, with marinas rather than peaceful little coves, they served to ease us into the American way of life which we were about to experience and share during the coming months. We formally “entered” the United States at Roche Harbour, a fascinating resort based on an old limestone mining operation. Boats from our part of the world are practically unknown in these waters, and we suffered the embarrassment of having “Waltzing Matilda” played for us at one restaurant, while west coast sailors told us how much they hoped “Australia II” would take the America’s Cup away from the New York Yacht Club.
We timed our departure from Friday Harbour in the San Juans to transit the Straits of Juan de Fuca during the night, when the prevailing strong-to-gale force westerlies which howl down it usually moderated. Wrong! First, as the sun set in our eyes, we had a nightmare time wending our way through a spider’s web of fishing nets, set in their hundreds (we found out later) during the few days of the year when gill-netting is permitted in the area. Then, the wind did not drop as expected and we had a rotten slog out against the steep seas of this turbulent waterway, finally rounding Cape Flattery with a sigh of relief the next morning.
We then confidently predicted a sleigh ride down the coast to San Francisco, our first passage with the prevailing winds since leaving Fiji. Wrong again! First, the wind died altogether. Reluctant to burn much fuel at the beginning of a passage, we slopped around for the daylight hours and motored for part of each night to get a few miles under our keel.
One of the few things I would have done differently in fitting out the boat originally, if I had known what I know now, is that we would have had much bigger fuel tanks. Rightly pleased with the boat’s capacity to sail well in all conditions, we never thought very hard about the few times when the ability to carry a lot of fuel would be of value – when a supply is cheap, convenient and clean, for example, and when we would dearly like to use the motor for more than the 300 miles or so which is our range. We are not so much sailing purists that we would not much rather press on south under power than slopping and rolling around in the ever-present ocean swell, with the sails slatting and banging above our heads.
When the wind did come in, about a third of the way down, it did so as a result of a strong storm centre off the Oregon coast, with an associated cold front pushing into northern California, which brought stiff winds from the south! So, 50 miles out then 50 miles in again we tacked down the coast, with the gloomy weather men muttering about gale and strong wind warnings as we persevered with this frustrating passage. Not that we had much choice – by the time we seriously considered putting in to one of the barred harbours of the Oregon/northern California coast, they were all shut by the weather anyway.
As so often happens, we finally came to harbour at San Francisco in most beautiful conditions, with the sun rising in unusually clear skies behind the gigantic but wispy-looking Golden Gate Bridge, a lovely introduction to this lovely city. To sail through the Golden Gate must be one of the world’s most spectacular harbour entrances.
West Coast USA
On entering San Francisco bay we had first made for the St Francis Yacht Club, but there was no room there or at the nearby municipal marina, so down past Fishermans Wharf we went to Pier 39, an attractive reconstruction of one of the old city wharves complete with shops, restaurants and a superb resident traditional jazz band. Less attractive was the marina itself, badly knocked about by the storms of the previous winter and having a totally inadequate floating-tyre breakwater through which the wakes of passing ships, ferries and cruise boats rolled unabated. Still, it was cheap, and very convenient for the tourist attractions which abound on the waterfront. Fascinating downtown San Francisco was an easy bus ride or a reasonable walk away.
It would be a miserable being who would not enjoy the street musicians, the jugglers, the vibrant enthusiasm of Americans – young and old – at tourist play, even if the whole thing is a bit kitsch. And the resident band at one of the pubs (bars, I suppose I should say) was Turk Murphy, famous in these parts, very much in the mould of the Lyttletons and Barbers with whom we grew up, as well as some of the better Oz trad bands.
We were in for a busy and expensive time in San Francisco, where we went through an energetic phase of maintenance, re-equipping and restocking. After seven years of sailing, including two years’ full-time voyaging, our yacht needed some refurbishing and new equipment, including new upholstery for the saloon. We also needed to buy a stack of charts and restock the boat with basic supplies in case of shortages in Central America. Attractive stores of every conceivable kind tempted us with the world’s biggest choice of consumer goods, of a nautical nature and otherwise, and the generosity of friends who were willing to lend us their cars meant that much of the time we were live-aboard tourists rather than cruising sailors. However, at the end of all this the boat was back to pristine condition and weighed down by basic provisions which, rightly or wrongly, we thought might be hard to obtain in Central America.
We spent some time with friends met sailing in the Pacific, and particularly with a couple of European origin (German and Norwegian) whom we had met in Tonga. They have built (with their own hands) a beautiful house in a very salubrious area north of San Francisco city, reminiscent of a rather hillier Dural; with them, and with an anaesthetist and his wife, we got a taste of the highly acceptable lifestyle of the moderately-prosperous Californian. Actually it’s very like Sydney – blink in a shopping centre, or drive down a suburban street, and you could be instantly transported right across the Pacific.
In a borrowed car we toured the wine country briefly, including lunch with the parents of a sailor we met in Honolulu, a lovely couple with a profound knowledge of Californian wine. To add to this affinity, he was also a car buff and owned a superb Jaguar XK150, very reminiscent of the XK140 we owned many moons ago in London. We enjoyed Californian wines, which are really very like Australian wines – not surprising considering the similarity of growing conditions and the use of generally identical grapes. The winery “tasting houses” are the dolled-up bottle shops which front most Australian wineries these days, but they did offer the chance to taste some average wines pushed with the usual enthusiasm of their young growers.
In this part of the wine country – the Napa and Sonoma valleys – we were able to buy some of their justifiably famous cheese. Most American cheese, even the genuine dairy product as opposed to the plastic muck, we find to be soft and insipid, but the Sonoma cheese was a delicious exception.
After a week on the city side of San Fancisco Bay, we sailed across to Sausalito, taking most of the morning to do this because the swiftly incoming tide had other ideas as to where we should be going. We then spent most of the rest of our time in the Bay at anchor in Richardson Bay off Sausalito, the only practical place in the Bay area for long-term anchorage.
We enjoyed a very hot spell for a while but to the relief of the local citizens what they call their “natural air conditioning” soon rolled in : the famous fog. Foghorns droned through the night, and one side of the Bay became invisible from the other as a solid white tongue of sea-level cloud pierced the Golden Gate, from the sea to the city. The ever-present wind does not blow the fog away but swirls it like a fluid mass, and washes it over the hills behind Sausalito so that its muggy, cool tendrils moistened us where we lay. The mid-morning sun usually burnt off the fog, as the afternoon sea breeze gained strength; weekend days were just like Sydney, the Bay a solid block of sails, with boats being driven with huge exuberance amid a mass of spray.
We left San Francisco on just such a Sunday afternoon, rail as far down as it ever goes on our very stiff vessel, carrying more sail than we would normally do because we correctly guessed that the wind would drop that night. In a couple of days we reached the fishing village of Morro Bay, an enchanting place, one of the few protected no-strings anchorages in California. It is a wild life refuge, with lots of pelicans and some 250 other species of birds to be seen, and is one of the only haunts outside Alaska of the rare and utterly enchanting sea otter. This beautiful creature lives entirely in the water, unjustifiably unafraid of human presence, and watches the passing parade with appealing gravity, lying on its back while floating in the water. It is one of the animal kingdom’s few tool users; it lives on oysters and abalone, the shells of which it breaks open by whacking them on a flat stone which it places on its stomach, still floating the while on its back. This is a performance that can bring tears of joy to the eyes! The sea otter is an endangered species (decimated by fur hunters) which is now groping itself back into viability.
Morro Bay also has an excellent wildlife museum to help fill gaps in our knowledge about the creatures all around; we were thus able to enjoy watching an amazing variety of bird and sea life: some 250 species of birds are to be seen in the area, and we had even had to get a bigger and better bird book!
While Norma reupholstered Cera’s saloon, Michael flew off to a car crash conference in Texas; then we were off again, south to Los Angeles, which took just a couple of days with the intervening night, but included rounding notorious Point Conception, one of the many “Cape Horns” of the world. It did blow very strongly, as advertised, and we were mighty glad we were not going the other way. While gale warnings were being broadcast we surged round the cape at well over hull speed, hand steering under a press of sail and enjoying that rare phenomenon, a brisk wind up our tail! The wind died the following dawn and we motored into frightening fog, using the satnav to grope between the shoaling shores of the Santa Barbara Channel and the busy shipping lanes just outside us.
The coast of southern California is a pretty windless place, and we motored most of the rest of the way to the Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles, which because it is so huge does not have the hemmed-in feeling of smaller marinas (they run small boat races entirely within it). There are excellent visitors’ docks there at reasonable charge but limited to a week. Fortunately the many yacht clubs in this immense marina recognised our Sydney club membership for the purpose of reciprocity, giving three days free then charging. We had the use of a friend’s car (a Mercedes two-door coupe, no less!), which is virtually essential in this city of the automobile, and did an enjoyable round of touring, movies, theatres and whatnot – the last chance for a while.
Memorable events: the Polish film “Danton”, exploring the relationship between Danton and Robespierre in a way that deliberately exposes parallels in present-day Poland between Walesa and Jaruzelski; and “Beethoven’s Tenth”, Peter Ustinov’s latest unlikely story about Beethoven reincarnate (with a hearing aid!), made magic by Ustinov’s own masterly stage presence. To our great surprise we found pleasure in walking the streets of downtown LA; the modern architecture has immense impact because, unusually these days, the buildings are set far enough apart to see them properly. The Bonaventure Hotel is literally a modern marvel, an astonishing melange of water, flying galleries, glass, colour – a living museum of modern art, and a headshaking contrast to the grand old Biltmore, the epitome of US Colonial/Spanish architecture only a few hundred yards away.
Los Angeles to Mission Bay, just north of San Diego, was yet another overnighter, with just enough wind to keep us sailing most of the way. Mission Bay is a man-made harbour, dredged from a swamp, with some big marinas and a vast system of waterways suitable only for small-boat sailing and water-skiing, most of them being blocked off by a road bridge. The only yacht anchorage is protected and pleasant enough, but strictly limited to 72 hours and policed by an official patrol boat every night. So, after our 72 hours we drifted round to San Diego Harbour proper, and made for the big yacht basin behind Shelter Island. This encloses among many other marinas including that of the San Diego Yacht Club and figures in most postcard scenes of the city (which is actually many miles away, on the other side of San Diego Harbour).
And so we started what is known among cruising yachts as the “San Diego Shuffle!” The paradox of this place is that although it must be among the world’s best places to keep, outfit and stock a yacht, it is one of the worst for the accommodation of visiting craft. This, despite the fact that virtually every vessel, power and sail, which is passage-making south to Mexico for the winter will call in there for supplies and maintenance. There is only one public dock for visitors, far from cheap and strictly limited to ten days total, and miles away from shops; our folding bikes were a blessing here. All the yacht clubs charge heavily, and generally limit the visitor to three days or so during weekdays only. To anchor in the one protected and convenient place behind Shelter Island is permitted for 72 hours at the weekend only, and a permit has to be obtained in writing five days in advance! There are other places in the main harbour to anchor, and many hardy souls with no choice (that is, no home yacht club membership) used them; but again, these were limited to 72 hours in some cases, and were mostly packed solid or were exposed to the wakes of passing ships. Dinghies left on the beaches were likely to be impounded, and yachts anchored without a light at night or showing a black ball by day were fined.
We did the sights of San Diego, including the famous zoo and the maritime museum. An early visitor to the boat was Alan Nahum, a Professor of Surgery long well known in crash research. I asked him to take a look at a sore on Norma’s face, close by her nose, which had been worrying us for a while. He arranged for us to see his partner, an international expert on the surgery of facial cancer. Confirmed as having a basal cell carcinoma, Norma had to undergo two painful sessions of outpatient surgery before it was all removed, having spread under the skin. The surgeon had to take about an inch of cheek eventually, but did a miraculous job of plastic surgery in cobbling it all together.
We spent the best part of a day organising the paperwork necessary to take us and our yacht into Mexico. And so, in mid-November 1983, we finally cleared San Diego for Cabo San Lucas, 760 miles away, looking forward once again to exploring foreign parts after so long in the New World.
We decided to sail non-stop to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California, although there are several possible anchorages on the Baja coast. Indeed, those several American and Canadian boats for whom the cruise to Mexico was to be the dream fulfilled were intending to make full use of them. But we thought that one bit of desert would probably look much the same as another, and we knew that we would be more likely to find some wind further out. We therefore sailed some 70-100 miles offshore and indeed found a good nor-wester, giving us the best ail we’d had on the west coast and a fast run to Cabo.
Cabo San Lucas (apart from being a cape, of course) is a small town catering mainly for American game fishermen who, with their families, stay in one of the few posh hotels while boat boys and crew look after their boats. Most of the game boats lie to moorings in the bay off the typically scruffy Mexican township, and the only space left to anchor is very close to the beach because it is very deep further out. The anchorage is fearfully rolly and wide open to the south. Exactly a year before, a southerly gale had ripped through and driven some 30 boats ashore, including Moitessier’s famous “Joshua”, so when a southerly wind picked up one afternoon to the extent that we had surf each side of us, we pulled out of the roadstead and made for the inner harbour. But first, we had to wait for the ferry to leave; the inner harbour is small, packed, and practically everyone has to move out twice a week to give the ferry manoeuvring space.
Four days were quite enough for us at Cabo. The town itself straggles along behind the beach; an official tried to hit us for $5 for a nominally free permit (to take the boat across to the Mexican “mainland”) but backed off when I asked him for a receipt (”well, if you don’t want to pay . . .”). Looking over the shoulder of a young American girl in the Post Office I saw she described the place in a postcard as “paradise”. Ho hum. We had a pleasant close reach in light airs over to the Mexican “mainland”, making for the small protected harbour at Puerto Vallarta. We had decided to pass by the good cruising in the Sea of Cortez, because to do it justice would have taken more time than we could spare, if we were to stick to our aim of clearing the western Caribbean before the beginning of the 1984 Atlantic hurricane season. Long distance cruising does have its deadlines, long term though they may be!
Puerto Vallarta harbour is man-made, but like everything else in Mexico it is still unfinished. A turning circle for the cruise ships has to be kept clear, so cruising yachts have to squeeze in between the turning circle and a small marina that is full up with local boats. There is no room to swing to anchor, so the four boats including us that were there at the time tied stern-to to trees in the grounds of a naval base, where we were entertained each morning by the world’s worst bugle band. Puerto Vallarta itself relies on tourist income, from the cruise ships which squeeze into the tiny harbour and from holidaying gringos at time-sharing condos and the smart hotels that fringe the sea front between the harbour and the town. We rode the local bus into town, an experience in itself, and a nightmarish ride on the way back with armloads of stores as the packed bus rattled over the cobbled streets in boiling heat.
The town was actually quite fun on a non-cruise-ship day, when the shops were quieter and the craftwork prices lower. This was one of those places where we wished we had more money and a boat with more room for storage, because we thought the art and craft goods were brilliant. This is true for all Mexico, but we did not realise at that time that there is great regional variation; we saw things in Puerto Vallarta which we thought we might get more cheaply further south, but we never saw them again. Prices for top-quality art were not low – several hundreds of dollars for work by such as Sergio Bustamente – but for general consumer goods, with the low value of the Mexican peso against the dollar, the prices we found to be very low. This also applied to local services such as buses and trains. Touristy activities, such as renting a car or flying, were very expensive. But to live like the locals, as we generally do, was to live very cheaply.
We were pleased that our next anchorage, in Tenacatita Bay, was not adjacent to any town of any size, and that for the first time for months we had a place to ourselves. This is a sheltered bay by Mexican standards, but even so it was subject to the swell which it is hard to avoid on this coast. We took the long overdue opportunity to dive and clean the bottom of the boat, and get stuck into the excellent fishing. A hotel the other side of the bay, with a gorgeous outlook, was practically deserted but served an excellent lunch by the pool. To one side of it was an abandoned hotel, and to the other side, with business logic which escaped us, some investor was building yet another huge hotel complex! Soon, it seemed to us, every beach on the Mexican coast would have a hotel behind it, and rooms would be even harder to fill.
Our next stop was the commercial port of Manzanillo; fairly typically for this part of the coast of Mexico we motored for about a third of the time, or half the distance. Manzanillo Bay is a big expanse of water with a hotel and resort complex at one end and the city harbour, enclosed by a breakwater, at the other. Like many boats we anchored in the bay off the resort for a while. There is also a marina for those who can afford it. Las Hadas, as the resort is known, is an extraordinary jumble of whitewashed buildings, an ersatz mix of Spanish and Moorish architecture. The resort imposes a charge of $4 a day for anchored yachts to “use the facilities”, which would have made a swim in the pool pretty expensive; and as we couldn’t even get ashore to the shops without going through the resort (and having to show a pass to get back in!), we moved over to the main harbour. Manzanillo is a busy, working port, and as such is dirty and noisy; but, free of the tourists who are the raison d’etre for most coastal towns in Mexico, it is also free of the pretensions which go with tourism. The market was excellent (in general, fresh produce throughout the whole country was abundant and first class) and the prices generally the lowest we found in Mexico.
Here is a typical morning in Mexico, as recorded in the log. First, to the bank, where after two lots of queuing and a great deal of typing by bored clerks we managed to cash some travellers’ cheques. The next battle was with the Post Office, where the clerk refused to sell us (or anybody else) stamps because he had run out of change! Then to the Port Captain’s building, where we solemnly trotted up and down stairs between his office and that of the Immigration Department, at the same time clearing both into and out of the port. What a pantomime!
And so south to Acapulco, arriving the day before Christmas Eve to do some shopping. Acapulco Bay is huge, and the only practical anchorage is off the Acapulco Yacht Club. This has some expensive stern-to berths on the outer face of its marina, where surge is a substantial problem; we chose to try to find a space to anchor among the several unoccupied moorings scattered throughout the best area. The club really caters for rich Mexicans from Mexico City and free-spending gringos with game boats, rather than impecunious cruising yachties. They had the gall to charge visiting boats over double the going rate for diesel fuel, so once again we ferried the stuff to the boat in jerry cans from a convenient service station across the bay.
Acapulco Bay extends from the end where the yacht club lies among some run-down hotels, via the old downtown commercial centre, to the Acapulco of the postcards at the other end. Here are the immense Hyatts, Intercontinentals and Marriotts, where tourists lie poolside in the sun. Downtown “old” Acapulco is another world, one which most tourists avoid: a hot, noisy bedlam of packed pavements and homicidal drivers, where food and all supplies are cheap and plentiful for those with enough stamina to stand the pace of obtaining them. It’s a fast, rough bus ride into town, and as few mechanical devices can be made sturdy enough to survive Mexico the bell pulls are usually broken and the only way to stop the bus is to bang on the roof. However, it is hazardous in the extreme to attempt to stand up to do so.
You may detect a sardonic note in this, and we must indeed confess to not sharing the enthusiasm of most Americans we have met for Mexico and its people. Norma, indeed, believes that the country is doomed, being incapable of surviving the 20th century (a view which is, apparently, shared by the World Bank). I think what really got to us was the vast amount of unproductive activity one sees around the place. On the one hand one might (read does) see a big new hotel being built right alongside two others which have just gone broke because nobody wants to stay there. On the other, government offices are packed with morose men and women for whom our necessary intrusions on their time were clearly unwelcome disturbances which upset the even tenor of the day. One lady (Customs in Acapulco) said we would have to fill in five copies of a form. Fine, says I, give me five blanks and let me do it. No, says she, giving me one – and sending me across the street to the shopfront Xerox to get four photocopies. On return she solemnly interleaved this lot with carbon paper – then filled them in!
Mexicans do everything at play with full noise and vigour. No little speed-boat will venture out without being grossly overloaded, and buzzing the anchored yachts in a blur of spray, with screams and shouts, is all part of the fun. One fisherman, with only half a smile on his face, asked us how we have managed to sail half a world with two, when a Mexican can’t go across the bay without three others to assist the driver. This mob make the Irish look models of orderliness and calm.
We must move on or go mad, we thought, and turned our minds to the next major obstacle of our cruise, the crossing of the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Most sailors have heard vaguely of the “Tehuantepecer”, but few who have not had to confront it realise what a fearful affair it can be. It is a northerly gale which funnels down through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, driven by fronts moving through the Gulf of Mexico and carrying cold air which is literally falling down from the Rocky Mountains. During January and February it blows more often than not, and during Christmas in Acapulco we listened with some dismay to reports of winds of storm force, 50-70 knots, broadcast by the American shortwave stations.
We waited for the new year before leaving. 1984 was welcomed by bomb-like Mexican fireworks, and we then faced the ponderously bureaucratic business of officially clearing the country. This involved several hot tramps between Immigration, Customs and the Port Captain, as most officials want to see all the others’ forms and put their own stamp on. A gale warning for the Gulf of Tuantepec was still current when we left, but the wind seemed to be abating and we thought all would be well by the time we got to the Gulf. But the gale continued and so we pulled into a terribly rolly roadstead, Puerto Escondido, for a couple of days.
Puerto Escondido is a common name in Central America; it means “hidden port”. This particular one, in Mexico, was so well hidden it didn’t exist, as Norma commented. Just a roadstead, with a curving beach open to the south, swells rolling up from winter gales in the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Surf on the beach is a sign an anchorage may be rolly. It was, indeed, appalling, and the 26 metre depth meant we couldn’t take a stern anchor out to hold us bow to the swell.
Why go there, you may well ask? Well, the next day would bring us to the Gulf of Tehuantapec, where the reported wind strength was 40 knots from the north.
We then pressed on to a bay just round the corner going into the Gulf, Santa Cruz Huatulco. This turned out to be the best place we anchored in Mexico. A small swell was the only indication that any wind was blowing in the Gulf; a simple fishing village nestled in the head of the bay, with a few “palapas”, or thatched open restaurants, on the beach. We stayed two weeks, and during this time there were only two days on which a wind of at least gale force was not reported for the Gulf, usually accompanied by abnormally high and steep seas and extending 200 miles or so from the shore.
One of the calm days we spent the night at sea on a fishing boat, one of the local prawn trawlers with whose crew we had become very friendly. This was a fascinating experience and a lot of work, as the prawns had to be picked out from an incredible mass of assorted sea life, sorted, and beheaded ready for market. Fortunately, Norma speaks good Spanish, so we were able to communicate well with these charming men. By the time we left we were sated with fish, prawns and squid, and Norma had filled several bottles with sea food. We even sampled turtle meat and turtle eggs; this was rather against our principles, especially as these animals are protected, but when in Rome . . . The meat was excellent, the eggs so-so.
We were most of the time by ourselves in Huatulco Bay, but by the time we left we were stacked with fish and also had a rather better and more charitable feeling about Mexico. On a morning the gale warning was dropped and no new cold front was moving into the Gulf of Mexico, four other yachts left with us in convoy, all headed for Costa Rica. After all that waiting, we had blessedly calm conditions for crossing the Gulf, but we soon encountered the other major wind of the region, the “Papagayo”. This is named for quite a small gulf on the Costa Rican coast, but in practice may blow from the north or north-east anywhere along the way; we sailed into it off El Salvador, and it was quite strong off Nicaragua although we were deliberately a long way off the coast.
There are no useful ports on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and it is manifestly highly imprudent to call in at El Salvador or Nicaragua under present political conditions. But Central America is not a homogeneous region, and Costa Rica is a peaceful place, determinedly trying to stay neutral in these troubled times.
We had originally intended to call in at some bays in the west end of the country, but the Papagayo had prevented us laying a course towards them, so we sailed directly on to the main port on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Puntarenas, in the Gulf of Nicoya. We took a week to sail the 770-mile passage, arriving an hour or two after a 51ft sloop. By the time the others who had been with us in Huatulco – bar one – had arrived up to a week later, we had heard all sorts of Conrad-like tales of high seas and suffering! Two yachts “blew out” their mainsails, the skipper and crew of another (the slowest to arrive) were no longer on speaking terms, and fifth, a large but lightly-crewed American schooner with a grossly ill-prepared skipper, gave up the whole enterprise and went back to Mexico! This was the first time we had ever done a passage in any sort of company, and it was very interesting to see the seas as others saw them!
Puntarenas town lies on a narrow spit of land, with a protected anchorage in the channel of an estuary behind the spit. We had been told, wrongly as it turned out, that we had to anchor in front of the town for clearance; when we were told that we would have to pay $20 for a launch to take the officials out to the boat we declined, offering instead to ferry them out through the choppy waters in our tiny dinghy – at which the very hefty Port Captain immediately suggested we move round to the calm side for their inspection!
The usual small handful of cruising yachts were in the estuary anchorage, and a young American had just opened a bar, showers, and whatnot at what he called the “Puntarenas Yacht Club”, a convenient and safe place to leave the dinghy. Costa Rica has a terrible reputation for theft, especially of dinghies and outboard motors, but now that everyone takes all sorts of precautions the actual incidence of such events seems to be low. Puntarenas itself we found to be a pleasant little place, far cleaner than any such town in Mexico, with an astonishing number of hardware stores, for some reason. The people are friendly, quieter and more placid than the Mexicans, but a lot less interested in food. Norma therefore found the market to be disappointing, with rather a sad selection of tired produce, in great contrast to the exciting abundance of Mexico. We never did find meat in Costa Rica which neared edibility. Mostly from Brahman cattle, it was as tough as old boots. We took a trip to the capital city, San Jose, in a famous rickety narrow-gauge train. This meandered through the mountains from hamlet to hamlet, for the inhabitants of which the train was the main mode of transport – their houses and shops even faced the railway line. The land is so lush that the fence posts sprout – we have never seen miles of live and maintenance-free fences before. San Jose must be the cleanest city in Central America, with one fascinating building, a miniature copy of a “typical” baroque opera house of Milan or Paris, built by the banana aristocracy around the turn of the century.
Costa Rica was an amazing contrast to Mexico, and we had to keep reminding ourselves that Central America is a collection of separate countries with different histories and cultural background. Nevertheless, what I regard as the malign influence of the Spanish invaders is all-prevalent. Because Cortez and his ilk couldn’t find much in the way of gold in what became known as Costa Rica, it wasn’t heavily settled by Spaniards – but they did nevertheless kill most of the “Indians” (what a gross misnomer that is!). So the settlers have come from all over, and recently the policy has been of determined neutrality as far as the turmoil of the region is concerned. The country does not have a standing army, and the money freed by the lack of a defence budget goes generally to education, so that the standard of literacy is higher than average country in the region. Because they have no oil, they aren’t even as broke as some of their neighbours!
Across the Gulf of Nicoya from Puntarenas are a number of pretty little islands, among which are calm and protected anchorages which we explored mainly on our own. On one of these islands, Jesusita, we took advantage of the 12ft tide range and beached the boat for cleaning and antifouling, which was long overdue. Each evening we were entertained by the screams of the howler monkeys in the jungle, although we never saw one.
With our newly clean bottom we sailed overnight to the other port on the Pacific coast, Golfito. It was a slow trip in little wind, threatened by thunder and lightning which came to nothing until during our final approach to the narrow entrance to the bay the developing sea breeze combined with a vicious squall and a pall of driving rain, so that although Golfo Dulce is actually pretty easy to enter we groped in with special care, easing up the harbour to seek the best shelter and finally dropping anchor off what we presumed to be “The Hotel”. There were a handful of yachts there, so we couldn’t be far wrong.
“The Hotel” it turned out to be, once the rain stopped, now the Hotel Miramar, run with friendly concern for the needs of passing yachts by cruising Americans with a temporarily dropped hook. The other anchorage in the bay, we were to find, was overseen by another expatriot, “Captain Tom”, a one-legged ex-US marine who will fix hamburgers for those who like them, and who has rigged up a rudimentary shower and laundry.
We walked sweatily into town, to “clear”. As in all of Central America, we had to report in and out of every port, carrying all the papers we could conceivably be asked to show. Here, the Port Captain was the immigration man and was also the Yanmar agent, whose sign was what we were told to look for, and who said “perfectamente” when I dealt out the ship’s papers. No problems. Nice man.
Golfito is the archetypal Central American banana port. Nothing much happens in a routine way. The banana business has gone bad, so now only an occasional ship pulls in to the big commercial wharf. The school and box-like houses of the banana company “new town” look grey and lonely, the business kept ticking over by a few managers and supervisors. The common man and his family live mostly in the old town, their dwellings decaying, sagging, those at the waterfront slipping slowly into the muddy bay. To avoid the worst of the bugs, small communities build on stilts over the water, and smoke drifts lazily over the rickety roofs as the tide carries garbage away from underneath.
There are a few stores, and a weekly market – a good one, with fresh produce from lush, rainsoaked fields. But most of the doors along the main street open into cantinas, spilling Latin American disco sounds and the occasional drunk into the street. Few men are regularly employed. The cantina is a place to go, cerveza is not that expensive, and what the hell, it’s hot.
Thus, the depressed banana economy has hit the local people hard. Their forebears were imported from many countries in the boom days of fruit, and now the uniquely polyglot culture has little to look forward to. Theft from yachts, unfortunately, is a side effect, and from the Hotel Miramar a floodlight shone reassuringly on those that were anchored a few yards offshore and easily seen from the open-fronted bar. Cool cervezas and the friendly macaws remain happy memories, although the latter lost some tail feathers to Norma’s Pacific-island-style trolling lures.
As usual, the boat people became friends. The amazing catamaran, “Taurua“, had been built in an English woodland by Wayland and Aruna using wholly traditional methods. They had steam-bent the frames from staves cleaved from raw wood (no saws were used at all), and the hulls were skinned by layers of tarred paper. Lying downwind of Taurua, our noses reminded us of recently-surfaced highways. On their own smithy, they had forged all the yacht’s iron work; the cartwheel around which the frames had been bent lay on the foredeck, and a full-sized anvil and all blacksmithing tools were tucked away below. Aloft, their baby girl climbed what little rigging was needed to support their timber mast and the wing sail which, when set, enclosed it. This patented sail is entirely of Wayland’s design, built around flexible formers which settle automatically into the aerofoil shape which is most appropriate for the chosen tack.
Wayland and Aruna had made a film of this fascinating project, which they showed at the banana company’s meeting hall after advertising the performance around town. The audience were mostly American company managers and the yacht people, but Wayland had rehearsed a Spanish commentary which, undaunted, he proceeded to give in an English accent so broad that the few Spanish speakers in the audience couldn’t understand it either.
The other filmmakers in the anchorage were Daniel and Magi, from Belgium in their beautiful aluminium sloop Elais, which they had also built themselves. Daniel is a pro, and the film showing the first part of the story of their voyage had just been shown on Belgium television. They also wanted to show it in Golfito – but the commentary was in French. Norma speaks French.
“Can you help me, just for a few minutes?”, says Daniel. “My English is not so good. Please help me say an English introduction”. Two days later, Norma had translated the entire, half-hour commentary, and I had recorded a completely new voice-over in English in a blacked-out spare room at the back of the Hotel Miramar. The premiere of this version was finally received with great acclaim by the bar-side audience.
Among those who were employed in Golfito were the local anti-drug squad, enthusiastically searching yachts after training in the United States. One yacht was searched each day. But we were away from Cera a lot, walking in the forest and taking bus trips to other villages. So it was that one day Daniel said, “the drug squad keep coming to search your boat, but you’re never there. Can you tell them when you will be, please?” The very next day a speedboat pulled alongside our dinghy, and we were politely asked, were we from Cera and were we going to the boat? We were, indeed. So, duly surprised by this unexpected honour we welcomed aboard the chief drugs man (his number two was in disgrace for cadging cassette tapes off the other yachts, and wasn’t allowed aboard), who did his search and pronounced us clean. Well, it all makes work for the working man to do.
A necessary bus ride was to Cuidad Neilly, the regional centre, to obtain Panamanian visas from the consul. Not a bad bus ride, for Central America, in not a bad bus, through green forests and plantations of palm oil and bananas, fields of contented white cows surrounded by contented white birds. But the Panamanian consul was grumpy. “Twenty dolares each. American dolares solamente“. Fortunately, we had some.
There are not a lot of places where you can see an iguana climbing on a yacht. During one of the regular afternoon rain storms (which explained the lushness of the thick, jungly vegetation on the hills overlooking us), Norma and I stared with bemused amazement as a large example of the species swam determinedly out to us. “Do iguanas swim?”, I asked. “Well that one does”.
Reaching Cera he (or she, or it; gender undeterminable) scrabbled for a foothold on our quarter. Slippery stuff, gelcoat. Norma had successfully beaten off an attack by a swimming cockroach in Hawaii with the boat hook, but before again reach for this defensive weapon our potential boarder gave up. But only on us; a few yards away lay the British catamaran, ripe for a renewed assault. Now, as noted above, the skin of this particular cat was made of tarred paper. And tarred paper is something an iguana can get its claws into, so with great success the spiky reptile scaled the heights of the port hull. “Hey, Aruna!” we yelled. “There’s an iguana on your boat!”
This surreal scene seemed right somehow, for the place where we lay. The heat draws steam from the jungle, which looms over Golfito and surrounds Golfo Dulce, the landlocked bay in which we lie. Anything, we feel in this lazy, humid, eery atmosphere, could happen. Like iguanas climbing on to paper boats. Happens all the time.
We were sad to clear magical Golfito, with its unforgettable memories. We had the usual Central American runaround, of course: from port captain to municipal tax office to port captain to bank to customs to port captain, three hours total, not bad really. But very hot.
The Pacific coast of Panama
Cruising in Panama seems a rather unlikely possibility, but to our surprise the next three weeks did indeed provide some of the most attractive and interesting sailing since the Pacific Northwest. Between Costa Rica and the massive peninsula which borders the west side of the Gulf of Panama lies the Gulf of Chiriqui, within which lie several groups of small, very sparsely inhabited islands, and along the shores of which are numerous river estuaries and protected bays. We wandered from island to bay to island. With no use for cash money, the shy people of the region traded lobsters, fish, fruit, vegetables and artefacts for tins of soup, fish hooks, and line, and small bottles of liquor. On the prettiest island, Parida, we were told that we were the first yacht to call for six months! This is really a forgotten part of the world, as most boats passaging the coast pass right by, on their way to the Canal.
More boats call at the Pearl Islands, which are in the Gulf of Panama about 50 miles south-east of Panama City. These were named by Balboa, who was impressed by the massive pearls used by the islanders. One of the biggest, “La Peregrina”, was in the hands of Spanish royalty for centuries and is now owned by Elizabeth Taylor. But the pearls are long gone now; newer claims to fame are that on the only island with western-style development, Contadora, the Shah of Iran spent his early weeks of exile, and foreign ministers of some Latin American countries met to form the Contadora Group. But to get to these beautiful islands we had to pay more dues to the weather man. The last point of land before rounding into the Gulf of Panama is most aptly named Cape Mala (”bad”), because the current-ridden waters are churned into a turmoil by the strong east and north-east winds which almost always blow here. To make the Canal direct would have been a dead beat to windward, and to lay off for the Pearl Islands gave us a better slant. Even so, we had a very hard time of it for a while, as did most others we know. One old schooner was dismasted and, with engine trouble, drifted off miles to the south; the bill for her rescue and towing to Balboa came to $18,000.
We had many happy, peaceful days in the Pearl Islands, including some time in a landlocked hole which would be on the list of our five best anchorages ever. Piloting took care; when we were there, in March, the equinoctial spring tide range exceeded 20ft, and the whole area is a thick mass of rocks. The charts are unreliable and of too large a scale to show any detail, and the water is murky and cool (a tail of the Humboldt Current often swings Antarctic water into the Gulf of Panama, in sharp contrast to the 84 degrees F we had become accustomed to). So we only moved at low tide, and did avoid ending up high and dry.
The Gulf of Panama teems with fish, and we hauled in as many of the noble dorado as we could handle as we sailed from the Pearl Islands to Taboga Island, close to Panama City and the Pacific end of the Canal. We spent but one night at this picturesque spot, because we were anxious to tackle the Canal and get through to the waters of the Atlantic.