Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dougs Infamous Yacht Trip

Monday 4th of August- Day 1, Panama city to Porto Belo

I was up ready to leave 4am. I kiss my weeping girlfriend goodbye and promise her everything is going to be ok. It is still dark and just walking the 4 blocks to the bus stop is unnerving as the only people around are the homeless sorting through trash cans, its also the first time I have been on my own since the start of the trip. I get my first bus and a kind Panamanian nurse on her way to work chats to me for the 1hr 15km trip to the main bus station. Once at the main bus terminal I wait with all the other early morning work commuters for another hour to get on a freezing cold bus to colon and of course I forget my jumper because it 30 degrees outside and for some reason these Latin American buses always have the air con set to about 2 degrees – I freeze the entire way even the arms inside the t- shirt trick didn’t work.
On arrival to colon my nerves have not settled much as the previous night I read that there are three murders a day in this city and a gringo with a big backpack won’t stand out much. I get off the bus and have to walk a couple of blocks to the bus station, I stop a passerby to confirm that I am going the right way because I look down the street I have to head down and there is not a soul in sight, quite strange considering it is morning peak hour and the street that I am standing on is bursting full of people, any way the passerby informs me that I am correct but then warns me in a serious tone that that I must take a taxi as that street is very dangerous, I am thinking a taxi for just 2 blocks – geez. So I try and get a taxi along with all the other 50 people trying to do the same thing, it chaos, but they are seasoned professionals and I don’t stand a chance. After 5 minutes of trying I almost resign to just walking the blocks when miraculously out pops the guy I asked directions from, he must of seen the desperation written all over my face and he magically instantaneously gets a taxi to stop at his feet, he signals me over and I share his cab 5 blocks in wrong direction, drop him off and then head back 7 blocks to the bus station, luckily the cabbie still only charges me $2.
2 hours later I arrive in Porto Belo my destination. I wait by the cathedral for another hour for the mystery boat captain’s wife to collect me but 2 South Korean guys and Russian guy show up, introduce themselves and then we are off to the supermarket to top stock up on supplies, mainly beer and vodka. We then head out to the yacht a 40 foot catamaran and meet the captain – Freddy a 60 something Danish bloke who spends most of time lazing around in his underwear drinking rum and his wife Yuderkis a pretty 26 year old Dominican republican girl. They tell me that they have to head off to another town to sort out the paper work for our journey to Cartagena which they also told me should only take 3 or 4 days. So I had the afternoon to myself.
Getting to Porto Belo safe and sound was an achievement I though I should let Monique know about so I emailed her from the only internet in town – the library, and told her that I would be in Cartagena sooner than expected and that I looked forward to meeting her at the airport. I then adventured around Porto Belo for the afternoon as it is an old Spanish port that was used to ship gold and silver back to Spain in colonial times, it was also repeatedly attacked by pirates so many reminiscents remain in the form of forts, cannons and walls.
That night we 4 boys decided on bonding by having a few drinks. Well a few drinks soon turned in to a lot of drinks. This was helped along by the Jonathon a gregarious Russian who fed us all shots of vodka like they were chocolate Easter eggs on Easter morning.
Tuesday 5th of August- Day 2, Porto Belo to El Porvenir, San Blas Islands
We all felt pretty sorry for ourselves on this morning, we were nursing pretty bad hangovers all day. I was glad we didn’t head out to open sea until later in the evening around 5pm because the captain liked to take his time getting things ready. I have never met a more relaxed person on my life, his wife on the other hand was energetic and always kept busy cooking or cleaning and as the boat did not have radar she was also look out for any reefs, she had amazing night vision. So we traveled all through the night to reach our destination. I was expecting to get sea sick considering all the stories I had been told, but I slept like a baby.
Wednesday 6th of August- Day 3, El Porvenir
Now this was almost paradise relaxing, getting a tan, chilling out on the yacht and swimming in lush Caribbean waters. Our aim here was to get our passports stamped for leaving panama and to get a zarpe (a document that you need from the marine authorities when making a voyage).
We anchored about 400 meters from shore and it did not take long before I was bored on the boat and as the captain thought that lowering the dinghy in to the water was to much work I decided I would swim to shore to get a water taxi to come pick him up so we could get the paper work sorted. On the islands lived the Kuna Indians, a placid beautiful people who wear traditional clothing which is unique and colourful. I organized the water taxi to pick up our captain and then returned with him to ensure my passport was stamped and all was in order. Unfortunately the officials could not give us the zarpe because the captain could not give them the correct paper work, Freddy claimed he had it on the boat and he would return the next day to have it all sorted.
Thursday 7th of August- Day 4, El Porvenir
We returned the following day to find that the official who we had spoken to the previous day and the only person on the islands who could issue a zarpe had left to Panama City for the day and should return the following day. So we were stuck for another day. We boys decided that it was not too much work to lower the dinghy in to the water and we went exploring on another island where there were more locals. They had traditional huts made of wood and straw and sold authentic and a lot more not so authentic artisans.
By this stage we had also run out of fresh water on the boat. The captain claimed it was because we took showers for too long, I think he had not filled the tanks before we left, I hadn’t even taken a shower yet as I was swimming all time and felt it was pointless. The boat also had a faulty battery so we had to use a petrol powered generator most of the time which he also did not have enough petrol for so we had to go and buy more gasoline from the islands. We bought some water from the island but that did not last long. I’ll mention now though that we did not run out of beer for the entire trip.
During the day we had some dug outs row up to the yacht selling fresh fish, lobster and artisans. We ate sea food like kings that night.
Friday 8th of August- Day 5, El Porvenir – Hollandaise Cays
In the morning I went for now my daily morning swim to the island to see if the official we needed to write the paper work was there to find he was not. One of the locals informed me that he may not even be there until Monday, three days later. I informed the captain of this and the decision was made to leave with out the zarpe later that evening.
I was glad to be finally moving somewhere as I was bored of staying put in the same place for so long. I was also concerned that I would not arrive in Cartagena in time to meet Monique at the airport. We left that afternoon to hollandaise cays where we hoped we would find more fresh water, some diesel as we might be running low the captain said and some more petrol for the generator.
When we arrive at Hollandaise cays we find no supplies at all, quite disheartening as we were hoping to head straight to Cartagena from here the following day. Instead we were head down to Isla Tupak where the captain was sure we would find the supplies (by the way I should probably tell you that this was the first time he had ever done this voyage, he had done Cartagena to Porto Belo but not vice versa)
Saturday 9th of August- Day 6, Hollandaise cays – Isla Tupak
We spent the day anchored in the beautiful hollandaise cays swimming, chilling out on the yacht, eating coconuts and playing cards. The setting was amazing, beautiful Caribbean palm tree filled islands, crystal clear blue and green waters and powdery white sand beaches.
By the time the captain was ready to leave it was 5:30 pm. So once again it was another all nighter on the sea. We spent a lot of the night collecting rain water using the fabric roof of the deck as a catchment which we had also been doing the previous three nights.
Sunday 10th of August- Day 7, Isla Tupak
We arrive at about 10am in the morning, we should have arrived several hours earlier but the captain had made a navigational decision to head out further from the coastline to avoid the reefs but he headed out about 2 hours too far. As we were heading in to the anchorage the captain took a bad route and even though his wife and myself said the water was to shallow he assured us it wasn’t. Before we know it we a stuck on a sand bank. Freddy chucks it in to reverse to no avail. So I get all the boys and we jump in to the water to try and push the 8 tonne yacht off the sand bank. We pushed and heaved with all our might and after about 3 or 4 minutes of strain we cut it loose. It was a good victory!
Here in isla tupak we found a small shop with a few food supplies. But my first aim was to find a phone to call Monique, the public phone on the island is out of order, so I go around asking if I can use someone’s mobile phone I offer US$10 for privilege but there is no reception on the island so my search is futile.
Jung hu and I had to trek to a river to find fresh water supply and then carry it back to the dinghy then I went in search of fresh fish, would have fished for it myself but all the fishing equipment on the yacht was broken and there was no tackle. So after asking several people in the village I get led in to a hut where there are 3 old women cooking a plethora of lobster, crab, fish and pulp. They are willing to sell me 8 fresh fish for US$8, quite a steep price, but I’m not paying for it, the captain is. I have to wait for them to clean the fish, it was pretty awesome sitting in their hut for around half an hour watching them go about their normal daily lives, no electricity, just a wood fire to cook, dirt floor and most of the family lying around in hammocks.
So the Korean Boys are getting pretty fired up by this stage. They have a flight from Caracas, Venezuela to Mexico City, Mexico booked for the 14th of August and it is a 24 hour bus ride from Cartagena to Caracas, so if they don’t get to Cartagena within 2 or 3 days they lose over $1000 worth of flights. They want to leave now to get on route to Cartagena, but the captain is too tired from sailing all night the previous night and the decision is made to leave first thing in the morning.
Monday 11th of August- Day 8, Isla Tupak – on route to Cartagena
So I wake up at 6am and see that the captain is sitting on the deck drinking a beer in his jocks and realize there is no way that we are going to be leaving soon so I go back to sleep. When I get up at 8 not a lot has changed. I go out and ask captain what has to be done before we leave he says he has to fix the navigational light on the front of the boat, I’m thinking we have come this far with out it why would we need it now, but who am I to argue. I offer to fix it myself which I had also done a few days before as I needed to do something to relieve the boredom but he assured me he would get to it. So I leave him to it. An hour later I head out to the front of the boat to see how the light fixing is going and the old fella has not got very far which is funny considering he used to be an electronic engineer. I help him for a while and ascertain that it not the globe but some wiring. Then he goes for a drink break, a very regular occurrence for Freddy. I investigate the wiring problem and find the fault, the earth was shorting so I rewire the light and it’s fixed, it took about 20 minutes in total.
We finally leave around 2pm in the afternoon. Finally we are on our way to cartagena!!!
It slow going, we only have one engine working and the current and the wind is against us. We are going about 2 – 4 knots which is about 5 to 7 kms per hour, now you can walk faster than that. But we are slowly heading in the right direction. Luckily there is a dvd player and a television on board so it gives us something to do while we a putting along.
During the evening we get some wind and we get up to a speed of about 6 -7 knots and we all start cheering.
Tuesday 12th of August- Day 9, on route to Cartagena
About mid-day the engine starts spluttering and struggling it conks out a couple of times before she just won’t start again. This is a major blow. Freddy reckons it is the diesel filter and it takes him until about 3am the following morning to replace it.
But it does not fix the problem and all night we are bobbing about the ocean. I think we were actually going backwards for a few hours.
Wednesday 13th of August- Day 10, on route to Cartagena
I get up early to hear no engine working. This is pretty disappointing. I head out to the deck and to no surprise find Freddy sitting at the table drinking a beer. I ask him what wrong with the engine, he tells me that the diesel is still not getting through. I figured what have I got to lose I will try and get it going myself. Freddy tells me how to try and pump the diesel through. So I climb in to the small stuffy engine room. There is oil all over the floor and the smell of diesel and oil is pungent plus with the ocean throwing the boat about it is not a very comfortable environment. I try and pump the diesel through and hit the same wall that Freddy did. I return up to deck and ask him if the is actually any diesel to actually pump through. He casually replies that maybe not. What do we do now? Well luckily there is still some diesel in the tank of the other broken engine. Freddy had siphoned out some back on isla tupak but thinks that we may have already used it. He is not keen get down and siphon any more out. Its pointless arguing with him so I go down there myself to siphon it out.
Now this was a difficult task. First of all it was hot stuffy and there was not bearly enough room to move, then the level of the diesel in the tank was to low to siphon it out (unless I got in the ocean), so I created a container out of a 4 litre milk bottle and slowly poured diesel into it bit by bit, it is hard to explain the process in writing but after about 2 hours of collecting diesel, and lots and lots of sweat, grunting and swearing we had about 12-13 litres of diesel (all those times spent installing fence posts under decks helped me through). The problem was that because it was all from the bottom of the tank and had probably been sitting there for a long time it was filthy. So thanks mainly to Yuderkis (the captains wife) we filtered and cleaned the diesel using a funnel and coffee filters. So after about 4 – 5 hours of work we tried to start the engine again, but no luck. I was at my wits end.
I was now convinced that freddy had incorrectly installed the new diesel filter and the system was not pressurized. I told him that if it is not fixed by the morning, we would get on the radio and get some help. I had suggested this earlier but he ensured me that it was not an emergency we were just going slowly. I then went to bed.
Thursday 14th of August- Day 11, on route to Cartagena
Once again I wake up, no engine sound the yacht just bobbing around in the ocean going in circles. I go out to the deck to see an exhausted freddy sitting at the table. Apparently his wife had been shouting and hitting him all night trying to get him to fix the engine. I asked him if he had got anywhere, he told me that the gaskets were the wrong size and he had got some other gaskets from the old filter. I figured that I may as well try and fix it myself before we radio in for help. I head down in to the hell hole engine room to find the filter in pieces on the oily floor. I remembered what it looked like yesterday and I put it back together. I try and manually pump the diesel through and alleluia the filter fills up with diesel. This is so exciting! We try and start the engine but it doesn’t start. Except this time I am in the engine room and notice that it sounds really dry. I check the oil and guess what it is bone dry! Now you are maybe wondering why I didn’t check it earlier, well that is because every time before we started a voyage the captain spent about an hour putting oil in the engine, so I figured it was something he had well and truly covered.
I soon figured out why there was so much oil on the floor, the captain had been pouring it there instead of in the engine. It was actually really difficult to get oil in to the engine and the only way I could do it was to use a small coffee cup and pour a little in at a time another difficult time consuming task.
Ok so after its about 11:30am I had been working on the engine since about 6:30am, I had been fighting off the sea sickness all morning as the ocean was throwing us about a bit. We try the engine, more gas! more gas! I yell and broom broom broom WOO HOO! The engine starts. It was one of the most jubilant relieving moments in my life!
I take a seat on the deck, the captain gives me a beer and says here you’ve earnt that and that was the only thanks I got.
We putted along the engine didn’t miss a beat for the rest of the voyage I wanted to increase the power but the captain was worried we would run out of diesel so it was painfully slow.
Friday 15th of August- Day 12, finally arrive to Cartagena
I didn’t sleep much the previous night as I was excited that we would be reaching land soon, and I was really worried about what Monique was going through and I was excited to see her. I wake up and see the cartagena sky line on the horizon. We were still going painfully slow but it was still a sight for sore eyes. I watched big cargo ships stream past us like we were standing still but it didn’t matter we were going to be there soon.
We eventually get to the anchorage. The captain argues with other captains about where he is anchoring as they think he is too close to their boats. We put the dinghy in the water and just out luck the outboard motor won’t start. So we have to row in to the dock. I was just laughing at this stage.

I head straight to the supermarket as I am dying of thirst, after sculling a 2 litre bottle of juice I try and get hold of Monique on the phone to no avail. I then jump on the internet and try from that angle, I only see one email from her, so I figure she must not be too concerned as she only sent one email. I leave the internet café and wonder back to the dock, at this stage the exhaustion hits me and I feel like a zombie walking down the street. Then I look up and there is Monique running towards me screaming balling her eyes out. She basically jumps on me and hugs me for about 15 minutes, now this is the welcome I had been looking forward to; it was such a good feeling having my baby back in my arms

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Honduras through to Panama

Hey everyone. Well it has been a while since the last update and well that probably Monique’s fault because she left me (Doug) in charge of writing this and she knows how much I procrastinate, anyway I’ll get on with it.

Last time we left you with our diving adventures in utila Honduras. From Utila we took a ferry back to the mainland then an 8 hour bus ride through to Tegucigalpa with our mates Kim, Eliza, Jack and Hannah. We stayed there the night before bussing it through to the capital of Nicaragua, Managua. There we were pushed and shoved through an insane bus change to the quaint colonial town of Granada. Our 3 day stay here included: chilling out in the beautiful tree lined plaza, watching a beauty pageant which turned in to a concert where the only people willing to dance were the town drunks – quite amusing – until the towns gay contingent joined in with a display of regaton that drew a crowd of spectators until the dancing got particularly sensual dispersing the crowd rather rapidly. Another night in Granada was spent at the local expat karaoke bar, my renditions of Wonderwall – Oasis and Paradise city – Guns and roses were mediocre while Monique’s Foolish Games – Jewel and Ironic – Alanis Morrisette were brilliant. But it was our duet of Grease lightning that absolutely brought the house down!

From Granada we went on a chicken bus adventure to rivas then another ferry to the impressive island of isla omepete. Formed from 2 volcanoes isla ompete is a haven for lush and forest, wild fauna and awe inspiring views. We stayed here for a few days and just soaked up the beauty.

From Isla ompete we moved on to San Juan Del Sur, a surfer hang out on the south pacific coast of Nicaragua. Here we reunited with our friends Kim, Eliza, Jack and Hannah and had a good night out. We also checked out the beach with some of the most brightly colored crabs we have ever seen, and thousands of them at that.

From San Juan del sur, Nicaragua we moved on to Nicoya, Costa Rica. This involved an interesting, time consuming border crossing, where we waited in lines for several hours. We had hoped to make it to the beach town of Savana on this day, but time ran out and we ended up in Nicoya. It just so happened that there was a big celebration commemorating the area independence from Nicaragua. We sat down and had a few beers in one of the marquees playing loud Latin music with intervals of Latin karaoke and it wasn't long before the locals had us up dancing and partying the night through. I have to say that we were really impressed by the friendliness and hospitality of the Costa Rican people, we made some new friends and had a memorable time.

The following day was spent at a beach called Savana, recovering, before missioning onwards to the capital of Costa Rica – San Jose where we stayed at the Panga, a kick arse hostel before heading up to Tortuguero, which involved 6 hours of bus rides and a lovely scenic boat trip down the the Rio Pavona and Rio Suerte, where with the help of Monique's super spotting skills we saw a sloth, monkeys, heaps of different birds and a crocodile. Tortuguero is an awesome town set in the jungle kind of like a mini Amazon. The people here are of Caribbean decent where they speak a Creole dialect of English man. In the evening we saw the inspiring event of a 180kg green turtle lay 120 ping pong size eggs and then completely exhausted head back to sea.

Before sunrise the following morning, we went on a canoe tour deeper in to the jungle. All the sights, smells and sounds of the jungle waking up were sensational. Later in the afternoon we headed off to our next destination – Puerto Viejo – it took a 3 hour boat ride followed by a 1 hour taxi to arrive at this chilled out beach town. Here we met an interesting fellow who goes by the name of Captain Zero who volunteered to be our leisure consultant. This 60 year old surfer hippy expat wanted to start his leisure coaching by trying to sell us some of his home grown weed, he quickly tried to prove his credibility by showing us a 3 page article in 'High Times' magazine devoted to him and his escapades as Captain Zero who back in the 70's was trafficking container loads of weed from Africa, the Caribbean and Cayman islands to the states. There was even a book written about him called In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer's Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road. By Alan Weisbecker. And watch out, I did some research on google and a movie is coming out soon. Anyway back to our trip we spent the afternoon with this eccentric fellow and it was pretty interesting.

Next we headed on to Bocas Del Toro in Panama. This involved another border crossing. Its quite amazing how just on the other side of the border there is always a mini shuttle bus waiting just for the gringo back packer, eager to tell you that the only way you are going to get to your destination is with them for the very small fee of US$10 per person, but in reality with a few questions to kind locals you find you can catch a bus with the locals for US$1.25 per person. Then when you arrive at the river side to take boat to your next check point you are accompanied by two guys “helping” you find the correct boat company to go with although it is clearly evident that we already know exactly where we are going. When they 'lead' you to the boat company that we were already going to, they expect a tip. I guess that what we have become accustomed to here in Latin America.

Highlights in Bocas del Toro include: Eating yummy chicken and plantain chips from the road side vendors, Seeing a Red tree frog and chilling out with hundreds of star fish at Playa Boca Del Drago. After a few days there we moved on to Panama city where we checked out the enormous engineering feat that is the Panama Canal. We also enjoyed doing some normal stuff like go to a see the new batman movie and got to a huge shopping centre. From panama City I decided to go my separate way to Cartagena, Colombia, in a yacht and Monique decided to take a plane as she hates sea sickness, and a few days on a yacht in the open sea did not appeal to her.

Next installment we will fill you in on all the details of Doug’s Caribbean yacht adventure.

For now take care every one and don’t forget we absolutely love any feed back, makes us feel just that bit closer to home.

Doug and Monique