Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Watch This Space

We're counting down the days to our Panama Canal transit. We're meant to pick up our Transit Advisor some time after 1400 Panama time this Saturday, the 25th, on the Atlantic side, and are scheduled to enter the blessed Pacific on the 26th.

If you're family, or just bored, you can follow our progress through the Canal at (We're the Galactic that is the US-flagged sailing vessel.) And there are web cams of the locks here. I just checked and it looks like only the Gatun locks camera is working. We should be going through that one on Saturday. (Take a screen grab, Mom!)

Just one hiccup at this point. The yachtie couple who were lined out to be 2 of the 3 extra line handlers that we need (Alisa is the 4th) did not have an up-to-date yellow fever certificate and so could not make the flight back to Panama from their visit home to Brazil. We've found one confirmed replacement, but are scrambling to lock in the last one. (So to speak.)

Elias birding in the jungle

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The End

I took a photo tour of the wrecks of Portobelo yesterday.

This sleepy anchorage took a heavy hit from Hurricane Otto last November.

Until Otto, Panama was considered completely safe from hurricanes.

Otto came ashore on the border of Coast Rica and Nicaragua, and it is the first hurricane to make landfall in Costa Rica since reliable records began, I believe around 1851.

It formed later in the season than any other major hurricane during the satellite era.

Given that Panama was considered to be well outside the hurricane zone, boats here would have been completely unprepared to ride out a really big blow. In Portobelo, eighteen or so yachts (I hear different numbers) ended up on the beach.

As you can see, quite a few were not salvaged.

A very informal survey of the wrecks suggests that metal boats are much more likely to still be in one piece, even if they have not been refloated. The glass boats are open to the tide, or resting on the bottom.

So, this was the end for a number of dreams, the sudden culmination of all the resources and effort that people expended to go to sea in their own boats. No sailor can look on these scenes with equanimity.

As you can see from the dinghy by the boat that is aground on an even keel, people appear to still be living on at least a couple of these boats.

The boat with the sails up, right in front of town, really caught our eye. Doveilyn, or Dorcilyn, I can't quite read the script on the hull. She appears to be a really nice little boat, and when we were first in Portobelo someone was still at work, apparently trying to refloat her.

But when we returned to Portobelo after being away for more than a month, she was abandoned with the sails up, in the same place where we had last seen her.

Finally, I think this is a really informative example of how a changing climate can catch people out. There is an incremental trend - Otto only came ashore 50 or 55 km farther south than the previous most southerly hurricane to make landfall in the Caribbean. But a very sudden, very abrupt event is embedded in that trend. If you're sitting in a crowded anchorage on the day that the definition of hurricane-safe areas changes, you get a lifetime of climate change impacts at once.

And I should close by noting that in addition to these wrecks and property damage ashore, 23 people died in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua during the storm...

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Kuna and the Snail

Yet another moment to remember when we're back in Alaska
The San Blas are an autonomous island group, nominally a part of Panama, that are the home of the Kuna Indians.

Isla Tiadup, San Blas
The San Blas are one of the marquee destinations in the world "cruising" scene. We have met very experienced yachties who compare the place favorably to the South Pacific, we know people who have spent months and months there on their boats, over multiple seasons.

El Caracol
We arrived in the San Blas  after our rollicking sail from Cuba. And the first thing we did was to reconnect with our friends on El Caracol, a Portuguese family whom the other Galactics had gotten to know in Curaçao last year while I was away in the US for my science work.
Galactic and El Caracol in the background, and the ships' people taking the waters
My immediate impression of the San Blas themselves was a little...blah. The anchorages were packed with yachts, many of them in the charter business, carrying cargoes of backpackers from island to island. Not so tranquilo.

Jorge and the Galactic dudes, post-spearfishing mission
Los Caracoles, though, proved to be a ton of fun. (El Caracol is "the snail" in English, of course. They have a blog, with out-of-this-world photography, at

Here and below - Kuna garb

The progress of global cultural homogenization, written in the dress of three generations of Kuna
So we naturally fell into hanging out with El Caracol, and didn't engage with the San Blas, or the Kuna, much at all.

We bought a few of requisite molas, the traditional appliqué that adorns pillows in many a yacht we have been aboard.

The second anchorage that we visited with El Caracol was an informal Kuna resort of sorts, with accomodation provided for the backpackers who were sunning themselves on the beach.

People took selfies, and uploaded them to Facebook.

El Caracol was off to Colon to be measured for the Canal. They had heard rumors that in either February or March, they forgot which, the number of yachts seeking to transit would make it impossible to book the canal without an agent.

(There is a pronounced negativity trap in the western Caribbbean. More about that in a future post.)

Our minds were already on the blessed Pacific, our home ocean, and at this point, as much our home as any place on shore. More so.

After only five days, we decided to leave the San Blas and go look into our own arrangements for the Canal.

The San Blas clearly has enough admirers already, and we were happy enough not to add ourselves to the list.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Role Models

Consulting with fellow-enthusiast Jorge
I have an ambition when it comes to parenting.

I strive to be an average father. I aspire to a middling outcome.

In our culture, everyone is always talking about how so and so is "such a great dad."

Well, we can't all be so great. I'm doing my best just to do OK.

It might be my unshakeable faith in the not-so-great, not-so-terrible nature of my abilities as a father, but I have long been attracted to the idea that what a growing boy needs at times is a male role model who is not his dad.

I had been thinking that might come in handy when the boys were 13 or so.

But lately Elias' enthusiasm for fishing has been outstripping my ability to fake it and keep up. I may or may not be an average sort of dad, but I am definitely sub-par when it comes to angling.  I can't wait to go gillnetting in Alaska to put in a winter supply of salmon. And I love trolling a lure for tuna on passage. But if you ask me if I'd like to spend a few hours of a perfectly good afternoon drifting around in the dinghy, trying to catch something, I'll probably remember a pressing boat job that I've been meaning to do.

On a couple occasions lately, Elias has found a work-around. He's met adult yacthies who are as mad for the piscine hunt as he is. And, one way or another, he has organized fishing expeditions with them, in their dinghies

I *think* that these fishing buddies of his are enjoying the outings as well. He always seems to come back with happy stories about all the interesting conversation that they had (read: he talked their ears off?). And, more to the point, they also come back with fish.

Anyway, whatever these friends to Galactic might think, I think these outings are a great way for Elias to go about the business of finding his way in the world, and finding his feet outside of the family domain.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

No Style

Alisa, waiting out a rain squall
Well, that's what you get when you get up on your hind legs and pontificate about what does and does not count as proper style, sailing-wise.

Or, as Alisa put it, "We chose this weather?"

The plan was to get to Bocas del Toro, about 150 miles away to the west of us, close to the border with Costa Rica. We could spend a week or two based there, and with any luck get up to the mountains at Boquete, and then make it back to Colon for our date with the Canal.

What could be simpler?

And, the weather forecast showed that we would get the last good sailing conditions before a prolonged spell of calm settled in. Of course, we would get caught by a front before we got there, and then would face 10 knot headwinds for the last 30 miles or so, but hey! We're Cape Horners and stuff. We're allowed to spit to windward! Not a problem.

So we set out in the morning, all fired up for an overnight sail and the promise of some natural history delights in a new corner of Panama.

The sail started off as a ripper. Eight knots, and not even trying.

We passed through the ship anchorage off Colon in the daylight, just as neat as could be.

And then, in the middle of the night, we got caught by the front.

I was awoken by an awful commotion on deck and stuck my head through the companionway to see Alisa in the act of being bedrenched by the mother of all tropical downpours, trying desperately to furl the jib, which was making a sound like coconuts hitting a sheet of galvanized tin.

Recognizing the better part of valor when I saw it, I limited my assistance to tailing the furling line from the shelter of the dodger and making encouraging remarks about how she could handle the situation better next time.

After the jib was furled and Alisa toweled off, it somehow transpired that it was my turn to go on watch.

The hours between 0200 and 0600 passed in the most perplexing sailing that I can remember. No matter what I did, I couldn't seem to tack the barky through less than 170 degrees.

The wind was blowing about 20, dead from Bocas del Toro towards us. I had her reefed down, and first I sailed due north, and then I came about and sailed due south. The wind shifted, I reacted. It rained, I hid under the dodger.

And as the hours passed, we got exactly no closer to our destination. In addition to the wind, it was obvious that we were bucking a pretty serious current.

When Alisa awoke and the light of day was on us, I gave up and fired up the donk.

I gave her revs, I strapped in the reefed main, I boldly pointed the bow more or less where we wanted to go, and...

...same thing. First we went due north, then due south. And to the west we went not at all.

By noon, our patience was nil. The engine had been going at hard revs for hours. The forecast showed the same front sitting over us for the next day. And we were still working hard to get exactly nowhere.

And so, with enough angst and gnashing of the teeth on my part that I would blush to tell you about it, we made the decision to turn around and head back to Portobelo, from whence we had come.

For the first three hours we flew. Eight knots, not even trying.

And then we ran out of wind. And we were given the most arresting show of strange wave morphology, as the two opposing swells met each other and sent fountains of water shooting straight up into the air. It was a great illustration of just what a powerful swirl of current we had managed to land ourselves in.

And then, the wind came up, and we sailed back...straight into headwinds for the last 80 miles or so.

After about 46 hours under weigh, we dropped the anchor right back in the same full-ish harbor that I had been so eager to leave behind.

In retrospect, we obviously forget a long-ago learned lesson about how poorly the forecast models capture fronts, and how easily they can give you 20 knot headwinds instead of 10.

And, we forgot the advice of friends who had done the same trip a week or so earlier, and warned us about how hard the adverse current had made the trip, even though they had no wind at all.

But, more than anything else, it was yet another reminder of how humbling it can be, trying to get yourself from one place to another on a boat, even in the very benign arena of the tropics.

There are times in this life afloat when questions of "style" don't seem so immediate, and your only concern is to do what you set out to do without making a complete mess of things.

On the bright side, the tooth fairy managed to find us on the first night out, even with all the pointless sailing around that we were doing.

And this Portobelo that I had been so happy to leave doesn't look so bad now, at all.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Alisa and I recently watched the movie "Valley Uprising". It's a history of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley aimed at non-climbers.

One thing that the movie reminded me of was the long history of "ethics" debates in climbing. For decades, climbers argued over the right and wrong way to climb. Is it OK to leave permanent bolts in the rock as anchors? Is it OK to hang onto your gear, rather than the rock? Is it fair to use oxygen in the Himalaya?

I'm struck by the contrast to sailing. In the Anglophone sailing world, at least, the question of how you get where you're going never comes up.

Maybe that's because sailors are a more relaxed bunch. Good climbers, they're driven.

But I think there might be some merit to applying the idea of style, of good ways and bad ways to do things, to the watery world.

So, with the usual caveat of "I don't care what you do, as long as you're not doing it to me", I'll offer up a few suggestions.

The most obvious point of sailing style is suggested by our friends on Mollymawk, who use their engine, like, not at all. That's style. Sailors sail. Losers (and dock queens*) motor.

Mollymawk, under power as it turns out

The only other style rule that I would suggest goes: marinas bad, rallies unconscionable.

Marinas are parking lots for boats. Everyone knows that many many boats never get out of the lot.

But rallies are the act of taking the parking lot with you when you go.

For those who haven't spent their children's entire lives living on a boat, I'll explain.

Rallies are this incredibly popular concept of pre-packaged passagemaking. First, someone organizes the rally. They schedule start and finish times for some very common trip on a sailboat - the sail down the Baja Peninsula from California, or the tradewind route across the Atlantic, or around the world.

Then the organizers organize everything. They schedule a marina in every port. They get the local customs agents to promise special service. They organize dock queens to do pre-rally checks on boats. They hire weather experts to give expert weather advice.

Then they announce a very high entrance fee. And, from what I can see, the organizers step back to avoid being trampled by the rush of people trying to sign up.

And then, if you have a very busy life that requires things like adventure to be exactly scheduled, and you have no problem with hand holding, you too can sail across the Atlantic, or around the world, or whatever.

(Nick on Mollymawk had this great idea to set out a few days behind the big Atlantic rally, with hopes of salvaging one of the very expensive yachts that every year seem to be abandoned by their crews the first time that anything goes wrong. Now that's style.)

You'll see what my hangup is about rallies. The whole beauty of the life afloat is the fierce independence that it gives you. When you put to sea it's in the knowledge that you've got only your own abilities to rely on. When you reach the far shore, the satisfaction, and the let-down, are both immense. Eric Hiscock famously said that sailing long distances in a small boat wasn't an activity undertaken to improve other people's opinion of you, but rather to improve your opinion of yourself.

Whenever someone else is making the decisions, adventure is absent. To be a sailor, you have to learn to make your own call on weather windows, you have to pick up a few words of a new language, you have to navigate the (never very difficult) processes of checking in and out of different countries.

In the end, you have to trust yourself.

And I woud posit that making whatever passage, or voyage, or coastal cruise, that you're able to make yourself, relying on yourself, literally as the captain of your own ship, must be so much more valuable and satisfying than taking on some trip that you're up to only if someone else is holding your hand.

So that's my cri de cour. Can the rallies of the world please shrivel up and die from neglect?

I'd be very interested to hear anyone else's take on what constitutes good sailing style.

And now, if you'll excuse me, the wind is fair and the Blue Peter is flapping from the yardarm. We have a fortnight until our date with the Panama Canal, and we're setting off to spend the interim in the western end of the country, at Bocas del Toro, which has the great cachet of being a place we never heard of before we got here.

Portobelo, which we'll sail away from in an hour

*The term "dock queen" is an original from Fatty Goodlander, friend to Galactic. I am quite jealous that he came up with that one. Anyone who has spent time around boats will recognize it as the perfect name for those hyperventilating, somewhat aggressive experts who never actually leave the dock. I've decided that from now on I'll just go ahead and rip Fatty off on that one.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Finding Fortune

Alisa, I'm afraid, will hardly recognize the sentiments that I'm about to express here.

She will be thinking of me as the bloke she has known over the last 24 hours, the one who is feeling a bit worn to the nub by the dual and dueling demands of being a working scientist and a globe-girdling yottie.

But if we look a little further back, say about 72 hours, to the day when I returned to Panama and was reunited with my fellow Galactics, I was feeling anything but overwhelmed by my eternal desire to sit in two seats at once. (I've heard that's a Russian metaphor. It's a good one.) 

Elias in Frisky with Panamanian and Norwegian crew
When I was reunited with the family, and our floating home, my overwhelming feeling was a sense of gratitude.

The boys, they seem to have really hit a great stretch in their young lives. They are quite comfortable in themselves, and our family routine, and their blossoming place in the world.

Alisa and I are banging along quite nicely as well, feeling, bar the occasional meltdown over the chalk-and-cheese mix of science and perpetual independent travel, like we're just hitting our stride in this life afloat. Give us the choice and we just might sign up for another nine and a half years. Without a second thought.
The boys with their great mate, Stan the Norwegian. Did he ever take their Minecraft to the next level
I would call it luck. But I've read enough Hemingway to have taken on that perspective of his that luck is both essential and undependable. It comes. It goes.

Luck is what we fell back on when we left the marina where the barky had been parked during my two weeks off in Alaska and Seattle, makin' a living. The stern went in an unexpected direction when we backed out against the trades, and I fell back on an unplanned all-or-nothing turn in full forward to get us out, living through the sickening moment before we had steerage and were just motoring down on the line of parked yachts before us. There was luck in getting in and out of there unscathed. Lesson - no more tight berths in windy marinas for us.
The Rose
So, rather than luck, I think I've got great good fortune. To be spending all this time together as a family, when everyone involved is happy to do so.

That's about all the fortune that I need, or could really imagine right now.

Luck might pass, and will. But a period of life like we're living through now, and have been for these years - I like to imagine that that is our moveable feast, that these years will have become an inseparable part of each us, and will go with us wherever we go.