San Blas

Hotel California

Connectivity hasn’t been great.  That’s my excuse.

It’s been a good few days – though I took a couple on the chin.  Things were going too well for me to get through unscathed.  It’s become more about keeping composure when I get hit, than avoiding the punches altogether.  One thing is becoming obvious – how hard it is to put San Blas in the rearview.  You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

The saildrive.  The ****ing saildrive.  I’ve come to hate these things, though I wasn’t a fan of them in the beginning.  The saildrive is a transmission of sorts – it has three gears (forward, neutral, reverse) and transfers the power of the engine to the prop.  I have two and the starboard one chewed through an integral piece called the Sliding Sleeve.  It’s a pretty rare occurrence – but I’m accustomed to unusual failures. 

A common failure would be so bland. 

With the help of Mike on Gilana (thanks dude!) we were able to remove the offending part.  Then the parts-search was on.  Turns out it was about $700 to get the part in the States, never mind the shipping and other BS required to get the part back onboard.  Never mind the labor and the downtime.  I decided, instead, to purchase a complete spare (though used) saildrive for the same price – thereby securing a bunch of other spares as well.

When I arrived back in San Blas, the saildrive was waiting on me (thanks Susan).  It was then up to me to remove the part from the spare saildrive and put it into my starboard saildrive.  Sounds easy, but it was hardly so.  It took about a day of sweating and cursing and bleeding in the engine room in inhuman positions, but I got it back together.  Then I needed to put back together the spare saildrive.  Then I tried it all out.  Reverse was forward and forward was reverse.  I’ve seen this before so I pulled things out and got them put back together correctly. All said and done, it seemed as if my saildrive woes were (at least temporarily) over.

I was free again.  Wow. 

NOMAD

NOMAD

Lots of diving.  Nate’s fish delivery service was back in full swing.  Need fish?  No problem – I was keeping my skills sharp and bringing back quality food for friends.  I put more fish onboard Bad Kitty, Runner, and (later) Paradise.  Steve quit bullshitting about eating SPAM and admitted that there were fish here – probably more to do with said fisherman than the fish (just getting even for all that SPAM talk, Steve).  Though one night Steve caught a Horse-eyed Jack (and told me it was a Blackfin Tuna).  My fridge/freezer was full.  Teena’s days onboard were coming to an end. 

Ol’ Andre

Then Andre showed up. Both of the pics below are dated – but we didn’t take many pictures last time ’round.

Andre (Dani is in there too)

Andre (Dani is in there too)

Andre!

Andre!

Andre has become a close friend.  As close as you can be without being blood.  He runs a backpacker boat from Cartagena to San Blas (and back the other way).  He pulled in next to us and we headed over there.  Then we had lunch with his crew and guests.  He was leaving later that afternoon for Robinson Island and then onto the East Lemmons for a little beach party.  This was as good of a chance as any to test my saildrive repairs and so – we decided to go with Andre.

On the way to Isla Robinson everything was fine.  We were chugging along at a fair pace, under full power.  Of course, when we arrived, things took a turn for the worse.  As I was setting the anchor I put my starboard engine into reverse – and heard a grinding sound. I immediately killed the engine and took a look into the saildrive – there was oil and nothing seemed amiss.  This led me to suspect one of two things:  a small piece of the broken part worked it’s way into the gears/bearings or the bearings had begun to seize.  Not cool.  Major bummer. 

Determined to not let this screw up my day – we continued on as planned.  After the short stop at Robinson Island we headed to the East Lemmons and started the party routine.  There were several captains there with full crews – so the party was in full swing.   

The next day was Teena’s departure – after which I would spent a few days alone onboard.  Steve was heading to Shelter Bay.  I had crew coming in on the 19th – but that was 9 days away.   So that evening when a girl asked me if I wanted crew for a few days, I responded positively. I told her that she would be cooking and cleaning – but that we would sail a bit and dive alot.  She was keen, and so plans were made to move her from Andre’s boat to mine in a couple of days.  The crew in question is a 23 year old Austrian girl named Sandra – and to date, she’d been epic.  As a general rule, I don’t bring on people under 25 – but this was spontaneous and turned out to be a good time to break general rules.  Meet Sandra.

Sandra

Sandra

When Sandra arrived, we spent a day relaxing and cooking and getting ready to get under way the following day.  I wanted to get back to The Swimming Pool for a break in the wind/waves/weather – so I could get to the outer reef and chase Black Grouper.   Of course – the wind was in our face, so I diverted to a Western part of the Coco Banderos, where we dropped the anchor behind Drummer – who would become friends.

Lionfish

Lionfish

That afternoon we went for a quick snorkel and I found a couple of giant lionfish for the beach-fire we would have with Drummer and Soliel (?) that evening.  We made friends that night and all of us were talking about heading to Cuba – wanting to get there before the floodgates opened and officially let Americans in to do what they do best – corrupt culture with the almighty dollar.  All of the reports of Cuba are great – big fish, cheap living, interesting culture.  Cheap rum, good cigars.  Even pretty women.  There seems very little reason to not go (besides the horrible amount of boat work that lies ahead of me). 

Another epic sunset

Another epic sunset

After we ate garlic/butter lobster and grilled fish, talked sailing and spearfishing – everyone perched on driftwood benches around the fire – I was reminded, again, how lucky I am to be here.  Even if the damn boat would never be completely fixed.  Even if I have to work until I’m one hundred years old.  Even if I’m going broke faster than I ever imagined. 

It’s all good. 

Back in San Blas!

Joy, Back in Panama

I left off last post as I was boarding a plane from Houston to Panama, with only half of my boat-gear.  On this flight a couple of pretty women took an interest in  me and so we exchanged numbers and names on the plane, much to the surprise of many of the passengers.  Never they mind, this is S.O.P.    

On the flight, I napped for a few minutes and read.  Real sleep continued to evade me, but a nap was progress.  

Joy, Back in Panama

When we landed the girls found me again and cut in the customs line so we could talk.  They seemed fun and adventurous.  To that end, I could think of few reasons to not have them onboard.  It soon became obvious they would visit NOMAD. 

As I walked out of the gates in Panama City, I was greeted by Teena (other crewish) and Roger (our taxi driver).  We went straight to the hotel, dropped my bags, and went in search of a good meal and a good drink.  It was also Dec 31st – meaning we needed a party.  The good news is that the meal, drinks, and party were easy to find.  And find them we did, complete with a ridiculously dangerous fireworks show that you can only get in near-3rd world countries. 

The next morning we were a little hungover.  I’m functional in this state, so I was up and starting to accomplish what I could this fine (New Year’s) day. I needed boat stuff, a ton of groceries, comms, an iPad repair, SIM cards, etc.  Naturally, this was New Years Day,  there wasn’t much we could do (everything was closed) – but we did try.  That evening the girls I met on the plane (Bobbeye and Alexis – hey girls, miss you already) came shopping with us and we arranged to get out to the boat the following day. 

Around 1PM the next day we loaded too much food/drink and too much boat-gear into a 4WD vehicle and took off toward San Blas.  A short stop for food and then we were suddenly unloading all of this into a launcha, the very same launcha that picked me up three weeks ago from NOMAD (this will be important as the story progresses).  We double-checked everything and made sure we all understood what was happening and then we pushed off toward NOMAD. 

Now,  NOMAD was in The Swimming Pool, and the drivers of my launcha knew this and had – just a couple weeks before – picked me up on NOMAD in The Swimming Pool.  So getting back to the boat wasn’t a huge concern of mine – we were going home and we would be there by sunset.   Surely.  

So when the launcha driver stopped in Yansaladup (many miles from The Swimming Pool and NOMAD) and inquired as to where my boat was – I was surprised.  My boat was another 10 miles away – exactly where I’d left it and where this very man picked me up just a few weeks before.  Even if he was stoned, this shouldn’t have happened.  When the driver told me he didn’t have enough fuel to get out to my boat, it was hard to hide my frustration.  We had reached the point that I was doubting his mental faculties.  Now I had myself, three guests, and two months worth of food (some of it needing refrigeration) – and we had no way to get that to my boat, nor anyplace to spend the night until we could regroup.  Light was fading fast, we were cold and wet, and there was no easy solution.  But I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve and I knew more than a couple people around here.

As we pulled into the nearest island chain, I heard the launcha driver trying to figure out his next move on the phone.  He was trying to justify his mistake and patch it up as best he could – but he’d effed up badly.  Very badly.   It was, after all, his only job to know where boats were and to deliver people to them.  Incompetence is so common here, but this was above and beyond. 

As we pulled into Chichime (still many miles from NOMAD), I saw friends on the islands.  A huge wave of relief washed over me as I recognized a good friend and fellow Texan – Steve.  Steve has a beautiful and large and fancy and expensive 44 foot Leopard catamaran.  And we needed something like that to sleep on tonight, since our launcha driver failed us so completely.  Luckily for me, it wasn’t a group of guys I was asking to put onboard Steve’s boat – but a group of beautiful women.  So he said yes and we began the process of unloading the launcha onto Bad Kitty. 

That night we came to the decision that we would all sail together on Steve’s boat (Bad Kitty) to The Swimming Pool.  After all Steve needed some fish and I could (minimally) provide that for him, since he’d been such a gracious host.  Of course, Steve was doubtful about The Swimming Pool providing the kind of fish I said it could – but I know this spot and I know it well.  To that end, I would fill his freezer- providing the weather wasn’t overly strong. 

Underway

The next morning we pulled Bad Kitty’s anchor, stopped by a friend’s yacht to pick up groceries to deliver to another friend in The Swimming Pool – and headed towards NOMAD.  Finally.  The girls began to get seasick, despite a tiny swell and sea-sickness pills.  As we arrived and NOMAD came into view I couldn’t help but do a little dance.  Finally, finally, back home.  FINALLY.  I promised myself to think hard before I left her (NOMAD) again.  

Surprisingly the boat was in good condition.  There was the mold-farm, but that is the nature of leaving a boat locked up in the Caribe.  Batteries were full.  Water was full.  Both of which were important, considering I now had three land-lubbing ladies onboard – afterall, it takes months to develop water and electricity discipline.

Dinghy-grocery moves

Dinghy-grocery moves (and Steve/Bad Kitty)

The rest of the day was spent moving things from Bad Kitty to NOMAD, saying hello to old friends that were in the area, and drinking our celebratory drinks.  More friends showed up – hey Lisa, you still have my pans :)   … Everyone was asking for fish.  But when we headed out to the reef – it was too rough, even for me.  And so we ended up eating spaghetti and making plans for tomorrow’s fishing escapade.  We drank and talked and Lisa stopped by so we could catch up.  She reminded me that it was a year ago that we met – on New Years on an island named Yansaladup.  It’s been a wild year.  

The girls

The girls

Good days

Good days

The next morning found Bobbeye and Alexis leaving abrutly, in search of a reliable internet connection that proved impossible to provide the night before.  Something about work.  And it was another moment in which I was reminded how good my life really is – to not be controlled by such outside forces.  I was sad to see them go, but such is life.  With the girls gone and hangovers to nurse – the rest of the day was spent resting and cleaning.  That afternoon I got in touch with Kenny who is now in this area (Kenny, can’t wait to see you dude!).  Having good friends around you makes all the difference in the world.  

At some point Steve began telling me (again) how few fish there were in The Swimming Pool.  I told him I would fill his freezer in less than an hour – depending on some amount of luck with weather/fish.  Steve told me that he bet we would be eating SPAM for dinner.  I knew better, and always appreciate a spearfishing challenge.

After all of his chiding – I picked him up in the dinghy that afternoon and we went outside the reef.  The rolling waves were steep and every bit of 8 foot – crashing into the reef with a sound that is exciting to me, but terrifying to others (I soon found out).  Steve was at the edge of his limits – his knuckles were white and when I was laughing, he was tight-lipped as we jumped and crashed through the surf to the outer reef.  It’s always a bit dicey getting outside, but we made it.

As I found the nearest honey-hole and dropped the anchor – Steve decided he would stay in the dinghy.  It was too rough for him.  And, of course, he didn’t think I would find fish.  As I rolled into the water – he said “Just think about SPAM.”  

Three minutes later I put the first of the fish into the dinghy.  No big deal to me, but Steve was a bit surprised. 

Within twenty minutes I’d speared Black Grouper, Dog Snapper, Triggerfish (Teena placed this order), and Yellow Jack.  And I’d seen a Goliath Grouper the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.  Stoked?  Yep.  My first dive back at The Swimming Pool and I’d landed another Black Grouper.  At this point we had fish for a week, and the dinghy was rolling precariously over the steep and near-breaking waves – so I called the trip and we navigated back to our catamarans.  As I jumped into the dinghy with the last fish – Steve said:  “Thank God you’re done, I was sure these waves were going to flip the dinghy.”  

Once back at the catamarans we cleaned the fish and planned our dinner, which was to be held onboard Bad Kitty.  I actually took a shower, put on clean clothes and even combed my hair.  We brought a bottle of red wine and the dinner ended up resembling a get-together in someone’s $1M condo downtown – but with better views.  Sometimes I feel spoiled.  And sometimes I feel like the most overworked and underpaid captain that has ever existed.  I suppose it all balances out. 

We talked until I’d finished cooking the fish – then we gorged ourselves on one of the best meals I’ve had in months.  At the end of it, as I stretched out on a cushion to listen to the waves break on the reef and the fish jump around the boat.

It wasn’t silent, but it was peaceful.  No car horns. No sirens.  No dogs barking.  No road noise.  No alarms.  No children screaming.  Just the sound of the breaking waves underneath a beautifully starlit sky.  We were quiet for a moment, just enjoying the silence, lost in not-so-deep thought.    

Then Steve verbalized what I was feeling.  He said, “What the f*ck would you do if you had to go to work tomorrow in Austin?”  We laughed hysterically at this.  

And as his words faded into the night, so did the very thought itself, never to be taken seriously. Joy.  Back in Panama.  

Holiday Madness

The Holiday Madness (is finally over)

There is an unalterable fact about the Holiday season in the States:  as the Holidays approach, madness ensues.  Sometimes this stateside madness even reaches out and grabs ahold of people many miles from the States.  Sometimes it even grabs me.

This year was no exception.  Last year my family visited me in San Blas for Christmas, but to think that would happen again would be wishful thinking. Which left two options:  1) go back Stateside (not preferable) or 2) don’t see the family (also not preferable), don’t participate in the madness, and spend Christmas on a deserted, white sand beach cooking freshly caught fish (preferable). 

Of those two options, I chose option 1.  The truth is, I like seeing family.  Which is, besides a boat-part search, the only reason I can see to return stateside.

Leaving NOMAD wasn’t all that easy.  The night before there was a small going-away party.  I needed to leave the boat somewhere safe (and get it there with a single engine).  I needed to go through all of the rigamarole of closing up and turning off the boat for a couple of weeks.  We emptied the fridge and turned it off, shut down all unnecessary electronics, put everything inside, and locked everything up. 

With our going-away party the night before, we were very short on sleep when the launcha arrived to carry us away.  The ride to Carti from The Swimming Pool was a long one.  Because of a minor emergency, I was leaving a little earlier than planned, and we (Ana, Dez, and I) were all in the water-taxi and then all in the same 4-wheel drive vehicle – heading to Panama City. 

At the airport, I said goodbye to my crew and then the usual nonsense started.  One of the security guards balked about the contents of one of my carry-ons.  I was bringing part of my watermaker home to have Spectra re-work it.  He didn’t like the way it looked, and despite it breaking none of the rules about contents of a carry-on;  he decided it warranted further investigation.  He insisted that I get an employee of the airlines to come and look and make a decision.  I raised Hell.  He quickly lost his confidence as I explained the issue to the police – who took notice when I raised my voice.  I could see, across the face of this particular security guard, that he knew he was going to lose this – but he stood firm and so I went off to try to get some underpaid flight worker to make a decision that I already knew would go my way.

Explaining to a Spanish-only airline employee that you have a part of a desalination system in your carry on, and that a security guard with a learning disability is insisting that someone from an airline come and pass judgement on it’s validity as a carry-on item isn’t easy.  But I did it. 

The airline worker kept saying that he didn’t understand what the problem was.  The truth is, neither did I.  But this was the game, and so we played.  After a brief discussion, the airline worker looked disgustedly at the security guard and told the security guard that he needed to let me through, as I was breaking no rules.  The security guard balked at first – but I got the police involved again and he sheepishly helped me re-pack the part and let me through.  Jackass.  This was the beginning of my re-integration, and it was already feeling like it would be a struggle. 

Next up was a flight delay.  Then on the flight there was a screaming infant one row in front of me and a morbidly obese person on my immediate right.   People were coughing all around me.  My larger than life neighbor was already asleep and leaning toward me – a sure sign of me becoming their head-rest and drool pillow for the next few hours.

This trend, thankfully, began changing when I touched down in Houston, Texas.  My Mom was there to pick me up and I collapsed in the passenger seat – wanting nothing but Taco Bell and somewhere to lay my head.  Back at her house I took my first hot shower in months and attempted to sleep.  Sleep, I would learn, wouldn’t come in these next weeks. 

The next day I unpacked, sorted through the corrugated Great Wall of China that the UPS, USPS, and FedEx guys had constructed along the front porch.  This was the result of my Amazon shopping for my boat-toys and replacement parts.  With life slowly starting to take shape here, I packed the minimal into the saddlebags on my motorcycle and that evening I sped toward Austin.  Admitting the speed in which I made it to Austin probably isn’t a great idea, but I will say that it was an exciting ride, despite the traffic the car-drivers endured.  Getting back on a motorcycle, after so long, is a remarkable feeling.  The speed and freedom is addicting. 

On The Move

In Austin, things already broken deteriorated.  But eventually I was back in my groove and day-drinking with friends that should have been working. 

A trip to Houston.  Back to Mom’s.  Back to Austin.  An expensive ticket on the bike.  A music festival.  New friends, old friends.  Drinking and playing.  Never feeling at home.  Sleep a thing of the past.  Everything so superficial.  Everyone taking such pride in uttering the words:  “I’m busy.”  

People were now married or now had kids.  But all was remarkably similar.  If we’re being honest, the people were so similar that I often wondered if I’d ever left.  What, pray tell, had they done in the last months?  I wondered if it would always be this way.  I had changed, again, immensely.  I could feel it.  The growing impatience with the small-talk of “home”, the lack of interest in people’s job-talk, the tiring of hearing the same bland story over and over.  Even more, now than ever, a man apart.  Everyone else just going with the flow. 

The distance between “normal” and myself ever-widening, those “normal” folks seeming completely stuck.  I’m moving, changing, growing so quickly – sometimes it seems as if they are altogether unmoving, despite running faster and faster on the wheel.  What is it about the Rat Race which is so hard to identify as fruitless, when one is running it?  Or is it a constant state of distraction that enables it?  

No Home

I’ve always been an easy-sleeper. In the military, you so often find yourself at the end of your wits and completely physically exhausted (through lack of sleep, the adrenaline-crash, and extreme physical exertion).  In this state you learn to sleep in any position and in any environment.  But sleep evaded me this time home, despite air conditioning and luxurious beds.  Hot showers, baths, cold drinks, Benadryl, and full stomachs didn’t help.  This added to an ever-deepening feeling of discomfort Stateside. 

Christmas came and went. The family was together and that was what mattered to me, the gifts and the religious muddling could be left for the birds.

I’m a grown human being – and when grown human beings want/need an item, they hardly make a list and hope that Santa delivers it on Christmas.  They visit Amazon and it shows up on their doorstep two days later.  If I see something I want/need on December 24th, I’m buying it, not waiting and hoping someone can read my mind and get exactly the item I want/need.  Please.  Of course, I’m also expected to mind-read and have gifts for everyone else.  I’ve always been a bit curious about this, but especially now. How, after months sailing around the Caribbean, in limited contact with everyone but the people in my anchorage, should I know that you need a new leash for your dog?  I prefer Thanksgiving.   

What Did You Guys Do After I Left?

One morning, shortly after I returned, I made a mistake and watched a bit of news in a hotel lobby while eating a marginal continental breakfast.  It was Donald Trump defending a ban on Islam, as a presidential candidate.  I won’t get into the reasons this is a dumb f*cking idea, but lets just say if and when one has this kind of idea – it would behoove them to keep it to themselves.  Better to be thought a fool, than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.   It was a stark reminder of how foolish the American public is.  And that is enough to remind me that removing myself from the clutches of those very masses was an intelligent decision.  That was my last flirt with news and “real-life”, I decided.  You  can have all of that, I have no use for it.  

Leaving

Suddenly it was time to go and everything was in disarray and half-complete and I was wondering where the time went – despite, earlier, spending hours wishing it would just be over.  Goodbyes.  Farewells.  Tears. Hugs.  That last email. This last Facebook message.  The last phone call.  A couple of very permanent goodbyes.  Some goodbyes I hoped were less permanent. Genuine heartbreak. Shedding anchors. 

More Airport Foolishness

Packing for these trips is stressful. I have too much boat-gear that needs to get to my boat-home, and the airlines are doing a great job of taking up where the rest of society leaves off:  if you don’t fit in their box, you’re going to have a bad time.  This “fitting into the box” makes moving through life much easier, but as everyone tries to fit into the box we remove individuality and everything becomes so vanilla. 

And this evolution of the airlines – once a symbol of freedom, now another source of stress and outrageous regulations and “security” – all pushing conformity.  The feeling of a cattle-herding operation, the whole of which is a near-perfect metaphor for the progression of our society. 

The feeling of being outside-looking-in never stronger, and from where I’m sitting (outside) – it seems more like a dystopian nightmare playing out on the inside.  I’m not fighting to get back inside.  This I promise you. 

Arriving at the airport with too much baggage and trying to make the square peg fit the round hole is part patience and part dealing with people that have below-average intelligence.  Maybe I’m being harsh and it’s just an exercise in futility.  Or maybe, this may be a circle of Hell. 

Part of my baggage included three flexible solar panels that I was planning to mount to my hardtop bimini to increase my solar capabilities onboard.  Upon arriving at the airport, we were almost through the bullshit – when a roving airline worker noted that these panels (which I was trying to check in) were actually three separate boxes that were taped, and roped together.  This was against some protocol.  I explained that if it made them feel better about their lives, I would happily cover these three boxes in a piece of fabric, because, afterall, that was (essentially) what my other checked bag was.  I offered to cover these three separate (but well secured) boxes in whatever material they wanted, and though the airline workers (surprisingly) recognized my sarcasm and the underlying point (what, exactly, constitutes a single “package”) – they would need a manager’s approval. 

As soon as we (Mom and I) saw the manager we knew we were screwed.  My Mom made a comment to that effect immediately.  Picture an unhappy, overweight, past middle-aged female airline worker. Someone resigned to unhappiness, a tangible aura of unhappiness emanating from her.  Got that mental image?  Good.  That is who they sent to ruin my day.  She arrived with a frown on her already unpleasant face, and I only saw it change for a nanosecond when she got the satisfaction of ruining someone else’s day. She was so efficient at this I actually wondered if it were in her job description.  

Rather than being human and waving the bag aboard, she chose to go through every possible reason the package wouldn’t be able to go.  The thing she decided upon was (wait for it…..) an embargo.  There is, as I write, some random embargo.  This embargo restricts packages above 68” in total whatever they measure – from entering Panama.  There is, of course, no notification of this to travelers.  I checked the baggage rules right before I left, and there was no mention of this.  So this airline worker refused to allow my package onto the plane.  When I asked her how we were supposed to know about this embargo, (I shit you not) she replied:  “You know now, don’t you?”  And, as if to try to top that as the shittiest thing an employee of an airline may say to the customer of said airline, she ended our brief and unpleasant encounter by explaining that this embargo “Inconveniences us more than you.”  The ignorance in this statement is and was dumbfounding.  Thanks United Airlines, here’s my middle finger right back atcha.  

And so, the solar panels so carefully chosen and packed (and so necessary to my lifestyle) are in Houston, Texas as I made my way to my boat. 

All of this, in combination with lack of sleep, didn’t help my mood.  In an effort to get over that – I decided to have a crew interview as I was waiting on my plane to board.  The interview went well and reminded me how good my life was soon to be.  The interview reminded me this trip home was coming to an end, and that soon I would be back onboard NOMAD.  Soon, if I could just make it to my boat, all would be right in the universe.

This positive interview reminded me of something else – after all of this insanity, the universe owed me something awesome.  It needed to balance out the scales.  We have an understanding to that effect.  The universe came through in the form of two beautiful women that were just ahead of me in the boarding line.  One turned to me and after an up-and-down look, she asked me why I was going to Panama.  I told her I had a boat there.  She asked why I had a boat there, and I told her it was a good place to have a boat.  And then this beautiful woman told me that neither of them had plans, they loved boats, and they were looking for good beaches.  Of course – I was anchored around some of the best beaches on the planet and had room on my boat. 

So the women were interested and beautiful and available and on my flight.  And as I boarded, I couldn’t help but smile.   Here it was: the universe balancing out the bullshit I’d so recently endured.  My friends in San Blas would be, again, surprised by a bikini-laden NOMAD. 

PS – to those of you I met at home, who read this – you made the trip infinitely better.  Seeing people back home, and reconnecting with people who read what I write is something I enjoy immensely.  So thanks to everyone in Bellville, Houston, and Austin that tolerated me for my brief stint Stateside.  Without you hoodlums, I’d likely have been driven insane :)

Buen Viaje

Happy Holidays from The Nomad Trip

So.  This post is part catchup, well-wishing, and looking back.

Since my last post, we’ve done a ton of fishing, poker-playing, some Holiday celebrations and making of new friends from other places on the planet.  I’ve traveled and said goodbyes and said hellos and reconnected with people from my previous life in the ratrace.  I’ve shed a couple of anchors and found unexpected freedom (not without struggle).  My (awesome) crew has moved on to other adventures.  My (super-awesome) friends on Sundowner have moved on as well.  And my plans seem to be changing faster than I can make them.

 

More San Blas Shenanigans

The Swimming Pool is undoubtedly my favorite anchorage in San Blas;  I guess that is somewhat obvious to those of you that follow along.  Here we have a beautiful and protected anchorage with great holding and a stunning view every morning.  We have good-to-great fishing that is usually accessible.  We have peace and tranquility.  We have friends.  And sometimes we get a weak internet signal that allows us to communicate with the people that we need to communicate with.  We even managed to do some Amazon shopping for Christmas and book flights for our upcoming adventures.

The Swimming Pool

The Swimming Pool

Hi

Hi

The Swimming Pool

The Swimming Pool

We’ve been eating well.  Very well.  Dez cooks like a champ and Tate and I put as much fish on the table as we can eat (and more).  In fact, we are so successful so consistently that it’s become tradition for us to get fresh fish for our friends in the anchorage.  Often, before we even leave to go freedive/spearfish, we take fish orders.  Our friends on Meridian (heya Dom, tell the fam we miss y’all) went as far as to give us a fish-order which we promptly filled.  Other boats that anchor near us have stopped their attempts to fish altogether (now that they realize we are giving away fresh fish fillets, cleaned and bagged).  Our free fish ordering and delivery service is a running joke that we enjoy participating in.

Cleaning up the reef

Cleaning up the reef

Crabs and such

Crabs and such

Spearfishing girls

Spearfishing girls

San Blas Hogs

San Blas Hogs

FISH!

FISH!

Dez and Ana have become addicted to spearfishing, and as new addicts do – they have more of a drive to spearfish than I often do.  The days became somewhat predictable, in the best possible way.  I would stumble upstairs to fresh French-pressed Colombian coffee and a great breakfast.  We would listen to the net at 08:30.  Then around 10:00 Tate or Dani and I would decide who would play who in our morning chess ritual.  During this chess game we would discuss plans for the day, boat gear, and cooking ideas.  The plans for the day were based around how much fish we had, what the weather looked like, and how we felt.  Some days were diving days and others were cooking days and others were chilling days.

Kitchen boss

Kitchen boss

Thanksgiving

One thing I’ve always appreciated about this lifestyle is that under normal (whatever that means) circumstances we have the time to celebrate almost any occasion.  Thanksgiving was no exception, and even our foreign friends (who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving) came and celebrated their first Thanksgiving with us Americans.  We hosted Swiss and Brazilian and Spanish friends on NOMAD.  Tate showed us his gumbo skills (I learned about rue).  Dom showed us her cheesecake skills.  Dani showed us her bread skills.  Ana and Dez cooked too.  Then we all gorged on a feast on par with any 5 star restaurant (and with better company and views).

Cheesecake

Cheesecake

Gumbo!

Gumbo!

Int'l Thanksgiving

Int’l Thanksgiving

Real-life

My friends in this community, and myself, have taken to calling the inconveniences and interruptions from home (see legal, banking, travel, and family concerns) “real-life.”  The words “real-life” are muttered in a tone that conveys a bit of frustration, and we all know what the other is talking about.  But, over the last couple of weeks,  I’ve been thinking about that.  I’m not convinced that is “real-life.”  In fact, I’m convinced that the life I (and those lucky enough to be doing something similar) live is remarkably more “real.”  Legal, business, money, and other “back-home” concerns aren’t very real.  Those are the things that we must do, and those are the things that take away from “real-life.”  Interest rates and worries about paperwork and entanglements that we are unable to shed are anything but real. They’re constructs of society that are forced upon us, infringing upon our days and trying oh-so-hard to bring us back into the fold.  When we call that “real-life” – we’re doing everyone a disservice, as what our modern culture accepts as “real” is – in fact – the least real way of living that I have ever encountered.  If not immersed in the ratrace, one can’t help to look at it as some dystopian nightmare. It’s a facade that keeps us from seeing and living real life.

With all of that said, no matter how much one tries to distance themselves from these issues and concerns – they do pop up from time to time.  Crew leaves.  Friends move on.  Family makes requests.  Things break.  Relationships crumble.  Plans must be made.  And with that, our real-lives here (living well, having good conversations, eating well, drinking well, exploring and traveling, owning our time) are halted while we deal with the consequences of our societal constructs we (dangerously) label “real-life.”

There is very little real about it.  But it snuck up on us and suddenly things in our utopian lives were, again, changing.

 

Looking Back

At the end of a year we all look back.  It’s natural.  Inevitable.  It’s not a bad thing.

Langosta?

Langosta?

Kuna taking our fish heads

Kuna taking our fish heads

Looking back, it’s been a long road, though I’m remarkably close to the very place all of this started.  But physical proximity to the start of one’s journey can hardly be a metric.  The metrics should be growth and learning and time well-spent.    After all, if one is to indeed circumnavigate, one will end up back where one started – but with a host of experiences that cannot be bought, only earned.  And earn them we do.

Pipes and such

Pipes and such

 

Two years ago I was a very different person.  Unhappy in my moments of honest reflection, with the realization that the life many expected me to lead would be hollow.  I couldn’t fix things. I’d never owned a boat.  I couldn’t cook nor did I appreciate food.  I took for granted many important relationships.  I was fat, stressed, and always planning my great escape.  Everyone owned my time.

On the surface I had an enviable position – I lived in a great city, I made good money, I was productively employed somewhere that gave me the illusion I was making an impact.  I had great friends, a strong relationship, an awesome dog and more vehicles than I could drive.  There were motorcycles and vacations and parties.  I was on sound financial footing (much moreso than now) and I didn’t need to rely on anyone else for any of that.

But. The great understanding is that the only thing that we truly posses is our time. And I didn’t really own that.

It’s hard for anyone who can really think to put too much value on these things modernity has put on a pedestal.  Are they important?  Sure.  And it’s often hard to be happy without food and shelter.  But I’m of the opinion that thinking men (and women) inevitably come to the same conclusion, if they are honest with themselves (that’s a big if):  the daily grind is mundane, and the art of getting by is mostly the art of distraction.  Busyness is mistaken for productivity.  What is called productivity is busyness.  The metric of a day well-spent is this mislabeled  “productivity.”  And if you just stay busy enough, if you can stay on the path to the white-picket fence – you may be lucky enough to survive a divorce and heart failure and the stress that comes with a grownup career and kids.

You may have a spawning event in which you bring forth more humans into a world that is unsustainably populated and unquestionably being vandalized by our species.  Stay the course, though, and you may get a chance to retire (if the stock market or Enron or a frivolous lawsuit or Bernie Madoff don’t wipe you out).  In which case your ego will likely be tied up in your job or your education, the cessation of which may kill you.  Of course, you’ll then have a mortgage or two and car notes and you’ll have to have made a fair amount of money to sustain that (or continue working until you drop dead).  You’ll be up to your eyeballs in commitment that sneaked in.  And if you manage to get free from those things – you’ll be at an age that makes enjoying your newfound freedom (?) difficult.

So.  Looking back – I’ve made choices that freed me from much of that.  I’ve had experiences that can’t be bought or recreated. My travel hasn’t been restricted to two weeks a year and I’ve strayed from the path more traveled.  My destinations aren’t resorts nor are they in The Lonely Planet.

Island-signage

Island-signage

Coke

Coke

Shopping runs

Shopping runs

My mistress

My mistress

What’s different now?  I’m a bigger and better person with a more satisfying life.  Cocktail party conversations aren’t limited to the mundane: interest rates, caring for newborns, workplace politics, or even geo-politics.  We have stories that involve real-life and real living.  We have real struggles.  And, most satisfying of all:  I built this house.  There were a million ways to live my life, a million choices, a million forks in the road.  Challenges that seemed insurmountable.  Knowledge that seemed unlearnable.  Conflicts that seemed unwinnable.   Steps that seemed too large to take.  Chasms too wide to cross. Risks that seemed too great.  Bills that seemed too large to pay and checks that seemed too large to cash. Relationships that have crumbled, mistakes that have cost me dearly.

Where I face challenges

Where I face challenges

With all of that, I’m here.

Here and present

Here and present

Here’s me wishing you a truly New Year in which you take big leaps.  I hope you defy convention.  I hope you tell the nay-sayers where to shove it – not with wanna-be pipe dreams, but with actions.  I hope you think of your life as a tapestry and not a series of steps along a path that was predetermined by other’s expectations.  That in this New Year you decide your journey is too important to leave to fate.  That your time is too precious to give away, or even sell.

On this New Year – blaze your own trail.  It’s infinitely more rewarding than mediocrity, and the challenges you’ll face as you try to break free are merely tolls along the route that leads to a life that’s actually worth living.  Pay the tolls, take the leap, face all of the fears – and live.  

Buen Viaje

Buen Viaje

Happy New Year from a semi-notorious, self-proclaimed captain of an always-broken sailing vessel.

Paradise!!

Fish and Other Stuff

The saildrive fight is still on.  It’s the seventh or eighth round and I’m not sure who will win.  It may end up a split decision. I’ve overcome bad businesses, crappy customer service, impossible connectivity, and strange personality differences.  If I can’t figure it out before I go home for Christmas, I’ll simply buy the part there and put it all back together after I return.  But I really hope it doesn’t come to this.

With all that said, we’re still having fun. 

New, Good Friends

We’ve become great friends with Sundowner.  They have an awesome site here:  Sundowner Sails Again…  When you’re cruising, you live with a much greater understanding of the temporary nature of things – and this leads to relationships which form and strengthen remarkably quickly.  Because, inevitably, one of you will sail away.  Our friendship with Sundowner has been no exception. 

It helps, of course, that Tate is a promising spear fisherman and than Dani is an all-around awesome chick who plays chess closer to my level (when I’m sick of getting my ass kicked by Tate).  It also helps that Tate drinks good scotch.  And that they are funny.  And that they are in their 30’s (at least 20 years younger than the average cruiser).  There has been much laughing, some dancing, much fishing, much diving, beach fires, and a fair amount of drinking.  All in all, it’s been great. 

It’s probably not much of a surprise that Tate and I did some great diving. 

At some point the wind and waves calmed down enough for us to “get outside” to the good fishing.  Tate knew a spot, I knew a couple of spots – and together we were in great shape to land quality fish. 

The outside reef in The Swimming Pool is accessed through cuts in the reef – some can be taken when the waves are 1 meter or less, some can be taken when the waves are up to 3 meters.  But ain’t nobody wants to go outside when the waves are stacking up to 3 meters.  So on our 1 meter day – we all went outside.

The girls have the spearfishing bug as well.  They’re sometimes more excited about spearfishing than I am.  All the gusto of a beginner in an adrenaline-filled sport.  Ana shot her first Dog Snapper the other day.  Impressive stuff, all around.

Fish and Other Stuff

On the day in question Dani stayed back with another of our friends on Meridian (hey Dom!) to do some snorkeling.  That left Ana, Dez, Tate, and myself on our voyage.  We made it outside the reef and then I tried to find the familiar landmarks that make up one of my favorite spots on the outside of the reef.  I found the landmark, but our first dive produced nothing but a couple of swim-by’s (Tarpon and Permit).  So I swam back to the dinghy, picked everyone up, and repositioned. 

On our next dive we found the spot. Huge caves in the bottom where Grouper and Dog Snapper hid and hunted.  Sharks too.  Lemon sharks and Blacktip sharks and Grey Reef sharks all competing for your fish.  But where there are sharks there are fish, so this is a good sign. 

On my first few dives I scored two large Dog Snapper.  The sharks were active, so I returned to the dinghy with the fish.  Restringing my speargun in the dinghy I heard Tate yell, “HELP!” – and when I looked over at him I saw his speargun floating next to him and I knew he’d speared a fish.  He had, and the fish was in the process of thoroughly kicking his ass.  Tate’s a big guy.  So as I jumped in and kicked towards him I was hoping his struggle involved a giant fish.

I was not disappointed.  When I saw the flash of the fish I knew immediately he’d shot a respectable Cubera Snapper.  And when I saw his shot placement I loaded my speargun and prepared to shoot the fish again.  Tate’s spear was precariously lodged just under the skin of this huge fish who was literally fighting for his life.  By the time I reached the fish and got my hands in it’s gills to secure it, Tate had mostly recovered and the fish was largely under control. 

We high five and Tate tried to tell me the story of the fish between gasps and between waves.  I was mostly concerned with landing the fish so I pulled it back to the boat and let Tate recover.  That’s when I noticed the second fish on Tate’s shooting line. 

The story goes like this:  Tate had shot a couple of nice Dog Snapper and on his way back to the dive spot (from putting the fish in the dinghy) he spotted a few nice Dog Snapper and then something larger in a cave.  He dove to the bottom, sat there, and threw a few handfuls of sand up into the water column.  Which is when the Cubera’s curiosity got the better of him.  The fish approached Tate, and as the fish turned to give Tate the shot – a smaller Dog Snapper got between Tate and the Cubera.  Tate took the shot and his spear passed through the Dog Snapper into the Cubera.  At which point the Cubera went apeshit.

The Cubera ducked back into the hole (as they do) and refused to come out.  This is a large fish, at home underwater and in caves.  Tate is less at home underwater and in caves.  Which is why Tate and the fish had such a disagreement about where they were going next. 

To make a long story slightly less long, Tate’s shooting line wouldn’t let him get back to the surface without dragging the fish out of the cave.  Which left him with two choices:  get the fish out of the cave so he could return to the surface to breathe, or let go of his gear and lose the fish and the gear.  Tate managed to wrestle the fish out of the cave, which is when he hit the surface and yelled for help.

Here, it would make sense for this story to end.  Alas, there was more in store for us. 

With the Cubera secured in the dinghy we all laughed and congratulated and back-slapped.  But I knew we were in a hot spot, at the right time, and that this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.  So I apologized for not sticking around and then jumped back in and kicked toward a hole I hoped would hold a nice fish for me. 

I was kicking hard when I saw the tail.  I knew it was a grouper, but couldn’t see the body and had no idea how large it was.  Just a tail that vanished into a hole.  That, though, is enough to dramatically raise my heartbeat. 

You see – in all of the time I had been diving San Blas I still hadn’t shot a Black Grouper.  It wasn’t an issue of seeing them – I saw them.  It wasn’t an issue of freediving skill – I could get down to them.  It was an issue of their spookiness.  They bolt, I mean HAUL ASS, whenever they see a diver.  You can chase them.  You can follow them to a hole.  You can search the entire labyrinth of the cave they swim into – but you won’t get within range.  They’re incredibly difficult here. In the Bahamas they are relatively easy.  In Mexico they’re an achievable goal.  But the Kuna Indians have been hunting them religiously for hundreds (?) of years here.  The Black Grouper in San Blas are a savvy fish.  And, as of the moment in question, I needed this monkey (Black Grouper) off my back.  Back to the story…

So when I saw this tail, I figured out an approach to the cave that would leave me hidden. Then I dove.  And this time, rather than running away the Black Grouper poked his head back out of his hole.  Then he turned slightly sideways to begin his escape, but it was too late. 

My heart was pounding and in my head I was screaming:  No Way! No Way! I’ve got him!  I’ve got him! FINALLY A BLACK GROUPER!  Nervous and excited in a way that neither Tuna, Billfish, Snapper, Wahoo, nor any other gamefish makes me, at least at this point in my spearfishing. 

I squeezed the trigger.  When the spear hit him he rolled and twitched.  One second the lights were on and somebody was home and the next it was an empty house.  Lights out.  And then it started to dawn on me that finally, finally, after over a year and a half – I had a San Blas Black Grouper.  Jesus H. Christ.  So much work.

Line fishing?  You can catch three a day.  But we work for our fish. 

With my prize in my hand I called the dive and we all regrouped at the dinghy.  From zero fish to enough to feed the anchorage – in TWENTY MINUTES.  When it’s hot, it’s hot.  The kind of day that you work really hard for and get rarely.  Finally. 

To make this fish story more interesting, I’ll tell you that Tate shot this Black Grouper too.  You read that right.  Tate shot the fish before I did.  When I got the fish to Tate he pointed out a hole in the fish’s tail where Tate’s spear had been only a few minutes before my spear stoned him.  A crazy day. 

Back in the anchorage we made the rounds.  We showed off the fish (many of the cruisers here are spearfishermen) and took orders.  It’s a longstanding tradition on NOMAD – when we have a good day fishing we clean and bag fish and give it away in the anchorage.  That makes friends and brings people together.  We had Permit, Yellow Jack, Black Grouper, Dog Snapper, and Cubera Snapper.  A great day fishing. 

Back onboard we took pictures.  Enjoy.

Fish and Bikinis

Fish and Bikinis

Dinghy full-o-fish

Dinghy full-o-fish

Fish!

Fish!

San Blas Trophies

San Blas Trophies

Then we set about the fish-processing.  It takes a couple hours to correctly process this many fish.  Every boat in the anchorage wanted fresh fish and as we were cleaning the Kuna came by – so they got fish and took all of our fish heads.  Not a drop was wasted.

IMG_1658 copy

Moving Around San Blas

After our first night in the Swimming Pool, Sundowner left.  We still had Gris-Gris, Runner, Hiatus, the Dragonboat, and a few other friends around.  Everybody is our friend as we feed the anchorage when we have a good day fishing.  

The Girls

The Girls

It was a little windy, the surf was up – so we couldn’t “get outside” to the good fishing, but we needed our daily diving session.  So we did a small dive inside the reef. Then we explored BBQ Island and decided to let the Kuna cook lunch for us.

The beach

The beach

Days full of simple living and no schedules.  Nights spent watching fish, chatting, and enjoying good wine. 

Then it was time for Teena to get back.  So we picked up our anchor and sailed to the East Lemmons. It wasn’t much, but it was sailing – finally. When we arrived at the East Lemmons we dropped anchor and I noticed a familiar boat in the anchorage – a captain that I’d met and become friends with in Cartagena.  Andres. Teena made it clear she wanted to party, and with Andres and crew – there’s always a party. 

So then night began.  We partied and ate with Andres and his crew – the group consisting of almost twenty people.  The girls danced and Andres gave salsa lessons.  I drank and laughed and did my best to make jokes in Spanish.

Suddenly we were out of beer.  There was beer on an island about two miles away.  But it was midnight.  The good news is I had the latest charts on my iPad and with Andres holding the iPad up front – I was able to steer the dinghy through the black night and around the myriad reefs to relative safety and cold beer.  It was a first, and we made people happy.

Teena was out early the next morning – heading back to Mexico.  After she left I was back asleep.  Then it rained.  So I  read.  We all relaxed as it rained and filled our tanks.  The real downside of rain is that we get no solar to charge our batteries.  And with another two people on the boat, we use a ton of energy.  So we were out of energy.  Naturally, when I pull out my Honda generator, it doesn’t start.  As if I was looking to compound the issue, now the pullcord breaks.  Have to take it apart, the girls help, we fix it and get it running to recharge our batteries.  It takes a few seconds to type that, but it took us hours to get it done.

We decide to stay around the East Lemmons waiting on news about my saildrive parts.  Naturally it doesn’t come (I’ve come to believe the guy I’m sourcing parts from borders on mentally handicapped).  I decide to not rush.  I decide to not worry.  Worst case scenario I’m returning home for Christmas and can pick up the parts then.

More charter captains (and good friends) come and go.  By day three in the East Lemmons, we’ve met almost all of my charter/backpacker buddies from Cartagena.  It’s good to know people. 


During this period I’m losing my mind.  There is very little diving in this area.  It’s raining.  My boat is broken.  I’ve killed a few good books.  But Mike takes me to a spot he knows.  He shows me a Dog Snapper hole, tells me it’s at 50 feet – a fair freedive when you’re hunting Dog Snapper (the tactic is to locate them, feign disinterest, dive to the bottom, sit there until curiosity gets the better of them and they approach you, hoping that happens before you need to breathe). 

The spot is a few large coral heads that are in a channel and connect to a reef wall.  The spot turns out to start at 45 feet and then drops another thirty feet before it hits the ocean floor.  So.  That’s beginning to get into the depth that I want to have a safety watching me.  If I sit on the ocean floor and a Dog Snapper circles just out of range – I have the tendency to forget that I need to breathe.  I set a mental depth limit at 55 feet, which would serve as my “bottom limit” – unless there was a great fish just two more kicks down

At 55 feet, with no sun and 20 feet of visibility I perched behind a coral head.  Waiting.  Concentrating on relaxing my muscles.  A fish circles just out of visibility.  The contractions start.  I run out of air. 

The surface.  Breathing. 

On the surface, Mike asks if I found the spot (the visibility made it impossible to locate the spot from the surface).  I tell him yes.  He asks if there were Dog Snapper there.  I told him no.  He says – they may be deeper.  I reset my depth limit to 66 feet on my dive watch and make the dive. 

Naturally I was more than a few feet away from where I wanted to be when I finally made it into the gloom and found the coral head.  More oxygen wasted as I swam along the bottom toward the coral head.  Finally there I headed down bit further.  My depth alarm went off.  66 feet.  And here come the Dog Snapper. 

The school stayed on the edge of my vision.  A good-eating size Dog Snapper gives me a broadside shot.  I take the shot, hit him well, and he slips under the coral head.  At 70 feet.  Already most of the way there, I descend further and untangle the fish and bring us both to the surface.  A lot of work for an unexciting fish.  He didn’t even make it into a picture. 

But we ate ceviche that night. 

And I slept well. 

The next post here will have bikinis and fish.  Which is why you’re all here.  So stay tuned.

Friends in The Swimming Pool

Cruising San Blas

Where to begin. 

The issue is connectivity.  I can’t post regularly, we’re blowing through data, and the posts stack up.  2/3 of our electronics are acting funny.  The other third lacks enough antenna to receive signal here… So, bear with me.  Getting connected, right now, is frustrating stuff.  And one of my new things is avoiding frustrating stuff.  

Onwards. 

So much has happened.

Teena finally made it onboard.  She was the final crew addition, and with her onboard the only thing we needed to figure out was the saildrive issue.  Did we figure it out? Probably.  Did we fix it? No.  But we did pull it apart (including making a special tool – thanks Volvo Penta – to remove the offending part) and get our hands on the broken parts.  Mike is a remarkable human being, and incredibly generous with his knowledge and time.  That’s the moral of this story. 

What caused the failure?  No idea.  Not even the boat-fixing-stuff God Mike had an explanation that we believed was 100% correct.  The truth?  If we can’t isolate the cause – it matters very little.  The remaining issues: finding the part, getting a fair price for it, getting it to us, and then (finally) installing it.  Continue mission.

As far as locating the part:  I am aware of a mechanic that claims to have my Volvo Penta 120S saildrives in his shop near here.  If that’s the case, I may be able to get a good deal on the entire saildrive and simply poach the part I need – which would leave me with a ton of spare parts for the next (inevitable) saildrive oops. 

Cruising San Blas

So.  Then it was about limping to some other anchorage so that we could wait for my saildrive-parts info in a place that we all enjoyed.  Spearfishing the outer reef in The Swimming Pool was the entire reason I came back to San Blas – so that’s where we headed. 

To get out of the tricky anchorage we were in (Yansaladup) with only one engine could become catastrophic quickly.  So we strapped the dinghy to my starboard hull and used that to get us up to speed and maneuver.  It worked wonderfully.  We have it down to an art now.

Dez fishing

Dez fishing

 

There was wind on the nose as we headed to The Swimming Pool.  This is par for the course onboard NOMAD – wherever we go, the wind decides to work against us.  So the going was slow.  We averaged about 4 knots, and when we arrived we put Ana back in the dinghy to help me maneuver around the shallow spots and patch reef at the entrance to The Swimming Pool. 

Dez catching fish

Dez catching fish

As we entered, we found The Swimming Pool full.  And since I like my space, we pulled far into a cut and dropped the anchor in a spot that most wouldn’t.  

Friends in The Swimming Pool

Friends in The Swimming Pool

Having confidence in your charts and your ground tackle makes these maneuvers possible.    It was tricky and I wasn’t beyond setting an anchor alarm. 

Sundowner, who we’d come to know online but not yet in person, was in the anchorage with their friends.  Of the other boats anchored around, I knew a few.  I made the rounds and said my hello’s.  It’s nice to feel welcome, to feel a sense of returning to a familiar place with familiar people.  Especially when the people are as generous and giving as the cruising community. 

Naturally, Sundowner was leaving the following day so we wouldn’t get to spend too much time with them this time ‘round.  So we did what we always do – drink and dive and socialize and laugh and eat. 

The surf was pounding the barrier reef, so “getting outside” wasn’t a reality.  We stayed inside and poked around some interior caves.  There’s a swim-through that provides some excitement and can be quite challenging when there is current.  To get through the swim through you have to be able to swim underwater for at least 45 seconds, sometimes upwards of a minute.  Not a huge deal, but enough. 

In the caves I saw a massive Goliath Grouper – which are fair game here – but he evaded me and never showed himself again.  He was over 100 pounds and likely would have pushed 200 pounds.  Not a huge specimen for the Goliath’s – but I consider landing a fish like that an achievement.  And I would have shot him as we had enough boats anchored around us that none of the fish would have been wasted.  But, alas, he was savvy.  Then Ana and I dove some patch-reef inside the barrier reef, but inside a channel. 

No other fish showed, and with three crew (including a chef) that wanted fresh fish – I was forced into Plan B.  Plan B: shoot Ocean Triggerfish.  I can almost always find them, they are tasty and have a great texture.  The only issue with the Ocean Triggerfish is what a PITA they are to clean.  Their skin resembles armor and dulls any knife, without fail. 

Triggerfish in the dinghy – we retired for the evening and put on our drinking pants and our fish lights. 

Ana is always swimming

Ana is always swimming

Shortly we were watching clouds of baitfish around the boat and a bit later the Barracuda, Tarpon, and turtles came in.  A wonderful substitute for TV.  The fish light gives us the excitement of seeing both the large and small ocean-creatures of the night.  All night we talked and joked and drank.  The night regularly pierced with cries of “Look at that!” and “There’s something else huge!” or “Come look, quick!” .  

The fish-TV programming was topnotch onboard NOMAD. 

San Blas

San Blas!!

Sunrise.

French pressed Colombian coffee wafted through the boat and coaxed me out of bed.  The boat slowly rocking, the movement almost imperceptible.  The girls were up and whispering on the deck, I heard them giggling.  Up.  Coffee.

I did a check of everything as I drank coffee and wiped the sleep from my eyes.  Engine room.  Oil and coolant and belts all checked out.  Power.  We had plenty of energy.  Water.  We were eating through our water rather quickly.

No headache this morning.  I thanked God for that and then wondered what God I should be thanking for a hangover-free morning?   The night before included champagne, good whiskey, and cold beer – all before sunset.  This morning could have been worse.  

San Blas!!

I started the engines and put Ana and Des on the bow to help pull anchor.  We were under way in 10 minutes.  I hailed our neighbors on the VHF and wished them fair winds.  They responded warmly.  Then I heard their radio chatter switch to the nuts-and-bolts as their little cruising group prepared to pull anchor and head to Colombia.  Then we switched our VHF channel to 72, and it started to feel like I never left San Blas.  Maybe Colombia was just a hot dream.  It was time for the morning net – I put NOMAD on autopilot, left the girls in charge and went below to play with the SSB.  We checked in on the net and caught our friend’s positions in the islands.  I was officially back.  People welcomed us back.  It felt good.

No wind.  Motors on and chugging through the interior of the San Blas islands. Heat.  Blinding sunlight.  Rolling waves and the sunlight playing games as it broke and twisted and reflected back at us under the surface.  Fishing lines out.  Breakfast sizzling. The smell was outrageously good. Small talk as I talked through our options for the day. What island?  How far?  Stop for water?  Stop for fuel?  Somewhere to dive or somewhere to see friends or somewhere to resupply? 

BZZZZZZZ  … The fishing lines screaming brought everyone together and back to the present.  I slowed the boat.  We drug the fish to tire it out.  I slowed a little more and we began gaining line on him.  But he was fighting and wasn’t jumping – which made me believe it was a Tuna or Barracuda.  I hoped for Tuna.  I could taste the Tuna steaks.  After dragging our prey behind the boat for a few minutes we caught sight of him in the wake.  Shark.  On a trolling lure?  Yep.  Bummer.  Not a huge shark, but no matter the size – it was a species we didn’t want to eat, which had a mouthful of dangerous teeth, and all of this would likely end in me loosing yet another fishing lure.  I got the shark to the sugar scoops and then he went apeshit.  The girls snapped pictures.  Then he swam away with my leader and my lure:  the line had snapped in my hand.  Rookie mistake.  I knew better than to hold him out of the water by the fishing line.  Well… Onward.

Our shark

Our shark

We needed to pick up another person in Western San Blas.  We decided to sail halfway there, then the remainder of the way the following morning.  I wanted to see some old friends – Mike and Laura on Gilana.  They were in their usual spot – Yansaladup.  It’s a tricky anchorage to get into, but it’s good practice for the girls – they need to be able to spot reef and direct me around it from the front of the boat.  Here’s some more geo-reference. 

San Blas!!

San Blas!!

As we entered the West Lemmons we were hailed by Sundowner (their website here:  Sundowner Sails Again) who had been chatting with me online for a couple months.  It was a half-surprise to bump into them. I got distracted chatting with them on the radio and nosed up very close to a reef, but I recovered without incident. 

We found a great spot to drop the anchor.  As we were letting out our anchor and chain I noticed that my starboard engine had died.  I tried to put the engine back into neutral and the throttle lever was stuck.  It wouldn’t budge.  Problem.

The Buzzkill

I didn’t have time to mess with it then.  But when we got anchored and secured, I nervously checked the Teleflex cables.  The cables were fine.  It was the damned saildrive.  Big problem.  It was seized and when I checked for oil (the same check I’d done just a few hours before) I found none on the dipstick.  Major problem.  Blown seal.  F*&$k.  

I immediately started pulling the sail drive apart.  When I did I found bronze shavings.  Lots of shavings and no oil.  Major bummer. This was going to be expensive.  This was going to take time.  This was not cool.  This is boat life.  

The point of going to this anchorage was to visit a friend and have a happy reunion before leaving to pick up Teena the following morning.  All of that shattered by this most recent discovery.  When I did finally see Mike and Laura I was sweating profusely, covered in grime, and a little worried.  Mike noticed quickly and after the “Hello, it’s been so long” ’s were exchanged we quickly got down to troubleshooting.  Mike told me he’d come and have a look, but to keep taking it apart. 

Back onboard the girls were a little bummed to hear of our latest mechanical failure, but their feeling of “that’s inconvenient” pales in comparison to the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  This wasn’t going to be an easy fix.  And I had a guest coming. And I was stuck without any Internet access (to do research).  Water was being used at an alarming rate.  We did, though, have booze and good cheese.  If nothing else, we could attempt to drown our sorrows and eat away any lingering depression. 

That is a bit dramatic. 

The truth is that our passage was a success, we were anchored in a beautiful place near close friends and anything on this boat I was confident I could find a way to fix.  Almost anything.  Especially with Mike’s help (he’s a fix-stuff God).  Add to that the fact that I was being treated like a king by my new crew – and – well…  It can always be worse.  Always.

After a few hours of sweating and bleeding in the engine rooms Mike and I came to the conclusion this was a big project.  Nothing as simple as replacing a bolt.  We did find oil at the bottom of the drive, but it was clear that much had leaked out.  That means that my oil-seal  in the lower drive had blown out underway as no oil was in the engine rooms. 

I’ll post a picture of the offending part when I’m able – but it’s a sleeve that sits over the gears and serves to help select gears (Reverse – Neutral – Forward).  It’s toast.  Chewed up.  Destroyed.  We had no internet, but Mike found it was about $600 for the part – plus shipping.  And getting it out of the sail drive with the boat in the water wasn’t going to be easy.  We did find, though, that we could repair it without hauling the boat, a massive relief.  As long as this turns out to be the problem, I could be back in business within a month.  Until then, I’m a little crippled.

When all of this is over I will be well-versed in maneuvering tight (and reef-strewn) anchorages with a single engine.  

Because Mike and Laura are somewhat of a family, they helped organize getting Teena out to me in Yansaladup.  We had Mahi sushi and wine for dinner and slept well.

We would work things out mañana.

Mañana. 

Cayos Raton

Across the Blue

Not a huge crossing.  Enough, though. We made it. 

Naturally, the wind was in our face the whole time.  It was 36 hours of pure two-engine motoring.  I tried everything.  We tacked and the wind would shift.  We changed course and the wind would die.  For 36 hours the wind was our sworn enemy. Not just unhelpful, but downright antagonistic. 

But we made it.  There were dolphins.  There was a bit of on-the-way work in the engine rooms. Mahi.  Sushi for dinner and hot coffee always in the French Press.  Epic sunrises to start our days and epic sunsets that marked the beginning of the night shifts.  

Dolphins!

Dolphins!

Not too shabby…

I had to push the engines a little, just to keep us averaging 5 knots.  With the wind in our face and a bit of current working against us, it made forward progress seem impossible.The good news is that the engines kept their end of the bargain – except for a fuel-related issue (fungus in the damn fuel tanks again).  No issues to speak of, mechanically.  We also made enough energy to keep a second freezer cool, which allowed us to have ice, more meat, and ice-cold beer (for when we finally drop that anchor – it’s always a dry passage). 

The other Dolphin

The other Dolphin

Night motoring was easy.  No wind, no sailing, and nothing but long rolling swells.  Ana and I took shifts in the Captain’s Chair, I napped outside next to the cockpit.  Des kept us fed and happy and was nothing if not a pleasure to be around.  On passage we found that Des is our most serious fisherman, much moreso than me (or anybody else I’ve had onboard).  We drank lots of French-pressed Colombian coffee.  We trolled lines behind us and managed to pick up a Mahi, which we promptly made sushi out of.  Fresh sushi while on passage is a hell of a treat.  We had dolphins play up front and marveled at the deep blue of the ocean when the bottom is thousands of feet below you.  That color blue is impossible to recreate.  You can’t describe it.  And it’s impossible to counterfeit.

The Sushi Treat

The Sushi Treat

Rolling Sushi Underway

Rolling Sushi Underway

With all of our attempts to use the wind only to have the wind pushing against us, we lost time.  So rather than sail all the way across San Blas on our passage – I decided to cut our passage time a little and come into the Eastern end of San Blas while we had good light.  The change in course cut our passage by 20 or so nautical miles.  This gave us the chance to explore Cayos Raton, catch a good night’s sleep, and give the engines a break. 

Coming in

Coming in

Approaching Cayos Raton we were greeted by schools of Bonito that played and chased bait at our bow. The water was over a thousand feet deep until we were nearly on top of the island.  Then, suddenly, we were in a hundred feet of water.  Then we talked through our route into the reef-strewn San Blas islands so everyone was on the same page.  We went through our anchoring procedure in advance.

Then we decided that champagne was the only civilized way to celebrate the passage, and should be the last part of our anchoring procedure.  And, lucky for us, we had a bottle chilling in the freezer. 

When we came around the island, we saw a group of three other boats.  We had neighbors.  And it made the already small anchorage into a minuscule anchorage.  It was difficult to find a place to drop anchor without putting NOMAD in somebody’s face.  So we passed the marked anchorage and nosed into two or three holes – eventually finding a spot far away from the other yachts, and not close enough to the coral to be immediately dangerous. 

As we were nosing around, one of our neighbors greeted us in their dinghy.  A Canadian family.  Then their cruising buddy came up and said hi.  Then our neighbors left and we dropped anchor.  Before I even turned off our electronics – our neighbors were back.  They wanted info about Colombia, as they were headed to the place we were coming from.  I invited them for a beer later, but before the sun left us I needed to see Cayos Raton underwater.  From the charts, the underwater topography looked promising.   These charts are from Eric Bahaus, who produces the only charts for Panama.  His accuracy is impressive.  

Raton, charted

Raton, charted

The girls tidied up and dropped the dinghy while I shut down all the systems and got our diving gear out.  Twenty minutes later we were snorkeling around massive coral heads and I was missing my first fish in San Blas.  After the girls had a chance to look around we met back at the dinghy and moved closer to the steep reef wall we had skirted on our way in.  I knew it was a promising spot as soon as I saw it.  The reef went from about 30 feet to about 100 feet in a steep dropoff, studded by large coral heads and pocked by caves perfect for hiding snapper.

I was lucky.  On the first dive I caught sight of a small Dog Snapper at 30 feet.  I dropped down from the surface and glided down the reef wall toward him.  At 40 feet he stopped running down the wall and turned sideways – still well out of range.  And so I sat on the reef wall and began systematically relaxing muscles, waiting for his curiosity to work in my favor.  Like clockwork, the fish turned and approached me. One pass out of range.  The next in range.  Thunk.   The fish was now doing circles below me as I pulled us both toward the surface.  I was already planning my ceviche when I hit the surface.  Do we have avacado?  What about peppers?  We really need more fresh cilantro. 

At the dinghy, Des was waiting on me.  Since she was inside, I didn’t just toss the fish/spear/speargun into the dinghy – opting instead to take the fish off of the spear first so that the mess of steel and fish spines didn’t injure anybody.  That led to me the snapper going apeshit and escaping under a coral head and me letting out a long string of obscenities as I watched my hope of fresh ceviche disappear with my fish under a coral head.  We searched, but a smaller snapper like that is nearly impossible to find in the spiderweb of caves in the coral.  

My penance for losing a wounded fish is the end of my spearfishing for the day.  This was no exception.

We went back to the mothership and I dropped the girls onboard as I went to check our anchor underwater.  The anchor was far from set, but it was holding.  We only had one night here and I had both engines to get me out of trouble should it come – so I decided we were OK and climbed back onboard to find our new Canadian and American neighbors onboard.  They greeted me with a cold beer and I dried off as we exchanged information, swapped boat-maintenance headaches, and told stories.  Good whiskey was poured over small globes of ice as we made small and large talk with people who would have been good friends if we all weren’t parting ways with the sunrise.

The champagne came back out.

All was right in the world.

Cholon

Long Time, No Post

Hello.  I’m Nate.  I’m sailing around Colombia on a Lagoon 380.  I used to update this site frequently.  I would ask your forgiveness for the tardy update, but I’m not good at asking for that. 

A coon’s age.  That’s how long it’s been since my last update. 

Long Time, No Post

Why haven’t I been writing here?  The truth?  I was busy.  I was working on the boat.  I was enjoying Cartagena.  I was tired of writing the same thing over and over.  Everyday was boat work.  Except the days that weren’t boat work.  Those days were fun.  On those days Kenny would swing by and tell me that he had a horrible problem and needed my help  most urgently. I would drop everything and come to his aid. Kenny had too many bikini-clad Colombian women and no guys on his boat, and he needed me to come and party with them in Cholon.  I would comply on those good days that weren’t boatwork.

And Now…

That’s all changed.  As I write this the sun is setting and we’re floating tranquilly in a bay with aqua-blue water that ends where the jungle begins.  The bay is stunning now, after the rain.  The birds are calling loudly.  The beer is very cold.  The air is cool and fresh. Tomorrow we sail to another country.  We’re leaving the country where they call me Gringo Dorado, going to the country where they call me Oso Dorado.  I’ll answer to either.  Nicknames are fun.

Cholon

We.  That’s right.  It’s no longer a one-man show.  I have a Brazilian Marine Biologist onboard.  She has an easy laugh and likes organizing things.  My boat is clean and organized and that makes me happy.  She swims more than anyone I’ve ever met.  She can wrestle a twisted anchor chain back onto the gypsy and doesn’t mind getting dirty.  Her name is Ana. 

There’s another girl onboard too.  She’s called Des (or Dez, maybe).  She’s from New York.  She’s a chef (SCORE!).  She likes wine as much as I do and we’ve had fun drinking too much of it.  She brought bagels and cream cheese and Boar’s Head ham to my boat and I can’t think of a better surprise.  She’s a gem.  Did I mention that she’s a chef?  Yeah.  We are eating well.  Every. Single. Meal.  Is.  Awesome.

Tomorrow our boat-family sails to Panama.  San Blas.  I want another shot at the Grouper there.  I want a few days of diving the outer reef at The Swimming Pool.  I want to sail and remind myself why I’ve been working in the Hellish heat of Cartagena for the last six months.  I want to have more of the good problems – too many fish, beers too early in the day, too many friends around, too much Rum the night before, too many reefs to dive.  Too much fun. 

We left Cartagena, likely my last time in that city, just a few hours ago.  I left nothing there, I took nothing with me.  Cartagena was a big part of my life.  Bigger than I expected.  It was so much fun.  It was so goddamn hot.  It was so loud.  It showed me some things about myself, some that I liked and some that I didn’t.  It made me happy to walk the streets.  I loved the Plaza at night, the women, the Aquadiente and the street food.  I loved our pizza place where they treated us like family. Cartagena made me curse the boat traffic. I detested the filthy water.  The lady that sold cheap (and delicious) lunch under the shade tree, outside of the marina, became something like my Colombian mother.  She made a special meal for me every day, in her personal tupperware and she labeled it “Gringo” – because there was only one gringo that ate there and it was this guy. 

We left Cartagena today and I was euphoric.  We left Cartagena today and it was sad.  I left two people that came to mean quite a bit to me.   They meant enough that it was impossible to tell them, but the words didn’t need to be spoken because the feeling was mutual and it was completely understood.  We left, they waved, they hugged, they wiped their eyes. I was so happy to leave. Euphoric.  I WAS FREE.

Just a Reminder

As if Poseidon himself were watching me leave, the sails were raised and immediately we were hit by a squall.  It came out of nowhere.  Suddenly we were caught in 25 knots of wind with full sails and the wind just kept getting stronger.  Sometimes it takes getting caught with your pants down to remind you that clothes have their purpose.  I got caught.  Consider me reminded.  There was an Oh-Shit moment, followed by some really fun sailing. I bled a little and some sails flapped too much and we hit 9 knots – despite having enough food to feed a small country, enough water to irrigate a small farm, enough booze to supply an aircraft carrier, and enough fuel to power a small country onboard. 

The Lost Time

What, pray tell, have I been up to?  Well. Shit…  Boatwork (so much that even typing that word turns my stomach).  My sister visited (randomly) and we sailed a bit and I was reminded how nice it is to have an intelligent and strong family.  I’m lucky, and that’s something I can’t deny.  I’ve been hanging out with Kenny, who has become a very close friend and who has been shockingly generous with his time and knowledge.  I’ve been hanging out with Fernando, who helps me on the boat and has also become a very close friend.  We spend time like most men do – complaining and joking about women, complaining and joking about how much bullshit you put up with when you buy a boat.  We eat together and laugh together and drink together.  I had a fling with a very talented singer at what might be the best bar in Cartagena.  I dove and fished and cooked and sweated and cursed and bled and lived. 

I lived fully in Cartagena and that is The Truth. But now that’s gone and tomorrow we cross an ocean and go to another country and place ourselves at the mercy of The Ocean, the only God that I continue to acknowledge.  Not a huge crossing, but we’re not sailing in a lake and there isn’t a Coast Guard to come a rescue us if we eff up.  It’s real.  

San Blas, it’s time to suit up.  Game time.  Two girls and one shaggy gringo are coming to rabble rouse.  We’ll be there soon. We’re planning many sushi dinners and many rum drinks.  We’ll see you soon San Blas.